If movies have taught us anything—think Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jungle Book, even Snakes on a Plane—it’s that snakes are not to be trusted. For Christians, it’s a lesson that goes back to the Garden itself.
Filmmakers hoping to offer a sympathetic depiction of these animals face quite the challenge. But that’s exactly what co-writer and co-director Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage manage to do in their recently released film Them That Follow.
In the hands of this capable storytelling duo, snakes are not the terror many imagine them to be, though a very real threat to life and limb. Rather, they are beautiful, albeit seriously misunderstood, creatures.
It is also difficult to paint a sympathetic picture of something as misunderstood, and often equally reviled, as Pentecostal snake handling. But Poulton and Savage demonstrate the same kind of care and concern for these people of faith as they do the serpents they handle.
Them That Follow tells the story of Mara (played by Alice Englert), the daughter of snake-handling pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins). Early in the film, Mara pledges herself to be married to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), the spirit-filled young man being groomed by Lemuel, even though she is pregnant with the child of Augie (Thomas Mann), the wayward son whom she really loves.
All told then, Them That Follow is a coming-of-age love story. But it’s also more than that, in large part because it offers a rare glimpse into a world of Christian faith and practice that will strike many viewers as strange and unfamiliar, even evangelical Christians.
The filmmakers could have easily sensationalized this practice, but they go to great lengths to do the opposite. The camera lingers over the characters and the places they inhabit, lending the visuals a Terrence Malick-like sense of spiritual saturation. The story unfolds slowly but intentionally, creating space for the characters to be and become rich and textured human beings rather than caricatures or stereotypes.
Most importantly though, the film depicts these faithful individuals not as blind or backwards, but as sincere and earnest. For Mara in particular, the film seems to affirm both her core desire to commune with the Spirit of God in and through the created order, and her ability to discern the Spirit’s presence and activity in her life.
In fact, without spoiling anything, the whole narrative turns on the characters’ perceptions of the Holy Spirit. A handful of key religious leaders refuse to respond appropriately to what the Spirit is whispering into Mara‘s ears, choosing instead to deploy the language of spirituality as a tool to maintain their power and control over her and the rest of the community.