Cinematic Releases: Them That Follow (2019) - Reviewed

Snakes are typically synonymous with evil or Satanism.  But in writer-director team Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s Them That Follow, their purpose is for proving one’s devotion to God in this tense Southern fried Appalachian-set thriller with an altogether different regard for the practice of handling deadly reptiles. 

Co-produced by Gerard Butler (you read that correctly) and opening quietly in limited release before surfacing on video, the poster suggests a devilish exercise in carnality with the slithery serpent draped around the main character’s neck.  The actual film is a rare genre picture set in the heart of a snake-handling Pentecostal church whose dangerous ceremonial worship comes to a head when a mass goes awry after one of the reptiles bites and poisons a patron. 

Partially a young-adult drama involving a taboo romantic love triangle, a confrontation with our collective fear of snakes and critique of the dangers of blind faith, Them That Follow defies easy categorization but succeeds first and foremost as an ensemble drama.  We’re introduced to Mara Childs (Alice Englert), the daughter of local Pentecostal pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) who is pleased to see one of his fellow parishioners working to win her affections. 

Unbeknownst to both men however, Mara is hiding a pregnancy sired by Augie (Thomas Mann), now a ‘black sheep’ in the community after recently leaving the church.  Drumming up fears and sympathies for the snake-handling church in equal measure, the film begins slowly before erupting into an inevitable firestorm with some of the most unnerving big-screen encounters with snakes in recent memory.

Though it treads the same territory of off-the-beaten-path Southern set chillers ala Two Thousand Maniacs or Deliverance, the performances by the ensemble cast and snake-handling Pentecostal church backdrop manage to keep it from tipping over into archetypical redneck tropes.  Walton Goggins particularly manages to invoke our sympathy and understanding of ostensibly a decent God-fearing man, even if his commitment to his beliefs turn a blind eye to obvious reckless endangerment of others.  The Academy Award winning Olivia Colman turns up in a strong supporting role as the mother of disgraced Augie alongside an unexpected dramatic performance from standup comic Jim Gaffigan as her beleaguered husband. 

The real stars, however, are the snakes which through a combination of CGI and real reptiles get closer to simulating what it must feel like to be draped by the creatures than any other motion picture I’m aware of.  If you’re afraid of the creatures in general, Them That Follow won’t do anything to ease those fears.  Aided by a hair-raising electronic soundtrack by Garth Stevenson and shot in often claustrophobic close-ups of the snakes interspersed with widescreen panoramas of the insular mountainous countryside, Them That Follow does an unenviable but successful job of holding one of wild nature’s deadliest up to our faces in such a way we’re inclined to recoil from the screen. 

Them That Follow won’t change one’s preexisting views about snake-handling Pentecostal churches but it doesn’t necessarily look down on those who firmly believe in the practice either.  Though the dangers and handling of them are indeed criticized by the film, there’s a modicum of admiration for those willing to lay their lives on the line for what is basically a down-to-Earth belief in goodness.  Right or wrong, Them That Follow is an inspired little indie with surprisingly more to digest thereafter than some of the wider theatrical releases of recent weeks.   

-Andrew Kotwicki