I don’t really like most horror movies or books in the style of, for example, IT or Friday the Thirteenth—I find real life horrifying enough, I don’t need scary clown monsters (although real life clowns are scary). Like Winter’s Bone, Them That Follow delves into one of America’s darker sub-cultures, in this case snake-handling churches in Appalachia, a branch of evangelical Christians who take sentences from the New Testament—Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19—literally and as the basis of their faith: handling snakes (and in some cases walking through, or even on, them) without being bit as the way to test one’s faith, or to show it to others.

Aside from a brief flashback right at the beginning, Them That Follow is my favorite kind of narrative: characters are introduced with their motivations set by key dialogue and/or the actors expressions and body language and we watch as those motivations come into conflict: Alice Englert is Mara, a sixteen-ish-year-old whose father is the pastor of the local snake-handling community. She falls in love with a boy her age, Augie (Thomas Mann) who has rejected snake-handling, and perhaps Christianity entirely, and who therefore is considered an outcast in the community.

Mara’s father, Lemuel (a powerful Walton Goggins) has arranged for her to marry another young man, Garret (Lewis Pullman) who comes from another snake-handling community that has been broken up by police. Lemuel’s community too is being watched/harassed, though we never see anyone from the outside. The main concern, for everyone, is that under-age youth are being bit during ceremonies, which is, in the eyes of the law, child abuse. Though not in the eyes of the church.

Goggins’ Lemuel is the most fascinating character out of a cast of fascinating characters: He shows compassion at times, cares for his flock, believing that his church is maybe the last hope they have. The community isn’t even a town—no state or county is every mentioned—just houses and trailers up in the Appalachian ‘hollers’. And it’s dirt poor: there don’t seem to be many jobs, and there are clues that meth/opioids have taken some people (one teen girl’s mother just abandons her). From the outside, one wonders how Lemuel can keep his faith, starting from the fact that his wife has died years ago, leaving him to raise Mara. I’m not sure he has faith so much as responsibility, but he may or may not have the ability to heal by ‘laying on hands.’ Or, his faith is the faith in a set of morals and social codes, which keep women subservient to men.

Mara, however, is a firm believer. She says more than once that she ‘feels the Spirit’ and during the snake-handling rituals she raises her hands and sways with the rest. And yet, she breaks rules, following both her passion, and her brains: she’s the book-smartest person in the film. Though she must have been home-schooled, while everyone else sees the rattlesnakes as perhaps literally embodiments of the Devil, Mara can rattle (ha, sorry) off scientific facts about them, which only add to what she sees as the snakes’ beauty.

Mara’s tension is of course between the morality of her community and what she feels to be the right way to act. We the audience think this will force her to come to Augie’s point of view. But Them That Follow ends up challenging us on that: The older people in her community, including her father, all lecture her about finding out what God’s/The Spirit’s plan for her is, while at the same time saying she must follow their rules. The story allows that maybe that plan is more important than their rules. This is the pull on the community: it both needs to change and can’t change because otherwise it will fall apart.

There is something more primal going on: Lemuel speaks both of God and The Spirit interchangeably, but the rest of the community, including Mara, always speak of The Spirit, which begins to sound not Christian, but pagan, either Native American or pre-Roman/Greek; it can’t be chance that the hoop on Mara’s necklace makes her cross look like an ankh. In fact, Lemuel does preach some sermons outdoors in a clearing in the woods, next to a river. The setting of Them That Follow is beautiful: Mara’s the only one who seems to open herself up to that beauty. She even thinks the snakes are beautiful. But the community looks on Nature like the snakes: something to be feared. And yet, it’s all around them. They think their religion protects them from what they fear, but instead it causes it.

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