“Them That Follow” Involves Pentecostal Snake-handling in Olivia Colman’s 1st Film Since Oscar, at SXSW

“Them That Follow,” from Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, is described in the SXSW program this way:  “Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, “Them That Follow” tells the story of a pastor’s daughter who holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.”

The film benefited mightily from superb casting, scoring Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar win for “The Favourite,” and the always charismatic Walton Goggins, previously known for playing Boyd Crowder in 74 episodes of “Justified” between 2010 and 2015. “Them That Follow” has just been selected by the Chicago Critics Film Festival as one of the first seven films to be shown at its film festival slated for May 17-23 at the historic Music Box Theater.

Thomas Mann (Augie) and Alice Englert (Mara) in “Them That Follow” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Walton Goggins’ preacher, Lemuel, is “in” to snake handling and his teenaged daughter is an ardent follower of his church. However, she has fallen in love with Augie (Thomas Mann), son of Olivia Colman’s storekeeper and ardent church-going woman of the Pentecostal faith.

Olivia’s husband is played by Jim Gaffigan as Zeke, and it is certainly true that Gaffigan must be one of the most ubiquitous actors working, as he also turned up in “The Day Shall Come” at this year’s festival and at “You Can’t Choose Your Family” at last year’s SXSW. I have to admit that I hadn’t really ever thought of Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan as man and wife, but both give it their all.

The fanatical preacher (Walton Goggins) has no pesky wife to interfere in his stewardship of his daughter Mara (Alice Englert), but Mara has a best friend, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), who brings new meaning to that old cliché, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Mara’s proposed marrying off to Garret (Lewis Pullman), despite her unprofessed love for the unbeliever Augie is what sets the plot in motion and, as you can imagine, there are many scenes of snake handling and tests of faith when her father learns that Mara is pregnant and, relying on the Bible (“Woman—Eve—is the first sinner and she must be cleansed!”) subjects Mara to a test of faith and a cleansing by way of the poisonous rattlesnakes the Congregation uses in its worship services.

Lead actress Alice Englert, the 25-year-old Australian-born Mara in the film, and the directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage provided much insight into the film and its origins in the Q&A that followed its showing at SXSW.  Said Poulton, “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Pentecostal evangelism and snake handling.  I felt an incredible sense of urgency.  This was an attempt to take audiences on a journey of empathy and understanding. I grew up in a religious family in The Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn’t easy for me to discover me.  As you take steps towards your own identity, the pressure on you is intense.  How do you, in this world, reconcile faith and coming of age and coming into your own self?  I was fascinated by the YouTube videos of snake handling. I was bitten (laughter from the audience). It was electrifying to me.”

This was the director’s first feature film and they were asked, “What was it like to have such a great cast?”

Thomas Mann (Augie) in “Them That Follow.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

A:  It’s a miracle. Such a gift.  We leaned on them so much.  We were so lucky to have this experience with them. The friendships forged in the woods were so incredible.  That is why I think the families feel so real.

An audience member asked the directors this question. Q:  “It’s almost like a horror movie.  Did you want to take it to this extreme level?”

The answer from the directors was, “We wanted to show some of the consequences of this kind of extreme faith.  They’re really wrestling with the conflict between the faith and the extraordinary stakes of their lives. These are people making choices that put their lives on the line.”

A second audience question about music listened to by the actors as they prepared went nowhere, but the film’s Mara shared that she did a great deal of research, as she was from Australia and all of this was new to her. She read “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Daniel Covington about a journalist who got deeply involved in the practice of snake-handling and “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Said Alice, to audience laughter, “I’m from Australia. I had to do some homework.”

The cast did share that the rattlers are not REAL rattlesnakes (“Those snakes were friendly. Stumpy was a delight.”) but relatively harmless snakes who have, over the years, changed their appearance to mimic the dangerous rattlers for protective camouflage purposes.  The cast also worked with a dialect coach, Judy Dickinson.

See it. It’s good, and well worth the investment of time and money.

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books (31 at last count) in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com.