Sunday, March 11, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene -- disturbing descent into cult's control

Director: Sean Durkin, 2011. (R) 

Wow! Who would have thought an Olsen could act? I’m not talking about the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. I’m talking about their younger sister Elizabeth Olsen. She plays the main character here, and the film centers completely on her. She has to carry the movie and she does, with aplomb. She is simply stunning as a young adult who is losing touch with reality and whose haunting memories cause her to descend into an ever-deepening paranoia.

The film focuses on Martha (Olsen) who is living in a hippie-like commune in the Catskills, New York. The community appears peaceful, almost idyllic as we first see it. But this is deceptive, as the commune is more of a cult, ruled by 50-ish gaunt Patrick (John Hawkes). We realize something is amiss when we see their meals, that are eaten in two sittings: the men first and then the women eat what is left. When Martha runs off into the woods with a backpack, she is seeking escape. After she calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), she is picked up and driven to her sister’s lakeside weekend home, a beautiful over-large house that Lucy and her English husband ted (Hugh Dancy) use to de-stress from the pressures of New York City.

The plot is simple, how will Martha handle return to normal life after two years in the cult. But debut writer-director Sean Durkin has crafted an atmospheric chiller that is disturbing and unsettling while being unforgettable. With a moody score, the tension increases slowly until the audience is nervous just watching Martha.

Creating the confusion is the deft editing. Durkin jumping back and forth between Martha’s life in the cult, where she is named Marcy May, and her life in the present with her sister. The cuts are picture perfect taking us seamlessly from a moment now to a moment then, as the present brings flashback memories to Martha. We feel some of Martha’s bewilderment, having to slowly assemble to scenes to come up with a picture of what is happening. She has compartmentalized the horrors she has endured, that only slowly emerge, and now cannot quite tell what is real and what is dream.

What we find is a cult that preys on young women, with handsome Watts (Brady Corbet) acting as a ladies man bringing in young “castaways” like Martha, who have little ties or relationships. They are warmly accepted into this friendly environment where everything is shared, even babies. They discover communal clothing, group sleeping arrangements and an absence of electronics. The group is striving for self-sufficiency, seeking to live off the land, cleansing themselves from the toxins of modern-day living. But once they are drawn in they are fed lies and forced to endure rape. Those who have come before, and have endured such atrocities, now tell her, “You have to trust us.” They claim to be a new family for the girls like Martha.

The first thing Patrick gives Martha is a new name. He tells her she looks like a Marcy May. A common cult tactic, this strips young Martha of her previous identity and forces her to look to the cult and its leader for her new identity.

This reminds us that Jesus promises to give to his followers a new name: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). But that renaming is a positive one, one that is personal and private. It is a unique link between Jesus and his followers, something special.

Skye Jethani, managing editor of Christianity Today's "Leadership Journal," commented on this new name in his book "With". Quoting George McDonald, he writes:
The true name is the one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man's own symbol -- his soul's picture, in a word -- the sign which belongs to him and no one else. Who can give a man this, his true nature? God alone. For no one but God sees what a man is.
Jethani continues with his own thought, "Who I really am, my tryest self, my most intimate indentity is something that will only be shared between me and my Creator."

The idea of identity being found in community is distinctly biblical. We find our personal identity in our relationship with God, as a child of his through Jesus (Jn. 1:12). And perhaps this points to the renaming in Revelation. But like a human family, all Jesus’ followers are related as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity and character is defined in our relationship with these family members. And just like the cult depicted here, the early church lived in community, sharing everything in common (Acts 2:42-47). But this was when the church numbered only a few thousand and lived in one location. Now that is impractical, although it establishes the practice of giving to others in need in our community or around the world.

Unlike the church, though, this cult is not God-centered. They are not a religious cult. But as the film progresses, it is clear that they are not as simple and as self-sufficient as they claim. They are no saints. Rather, they leave a trail of robbery, rape and murder.

The methods of a cult are further evidenced in their early and easy acceptance of the “acolyte”. These young women like Martha have broken or missing family. They are seeking acceptance and relationship. They crave love. They find it in Patrick and the others. Patrick tells Marcy May, “You are a leader and a teacher,” although he has nothing to base this on. It is a false promise. Yet it is one that triggers a hope in her, since she has not heard such positive affirmation before. Like this false hope his love is a false love, a diabolical lie.

The cultists present half-truths or partial truths to the new followers. “We are your family,” one says. In a sense this is true. But a real family seeks the well-being of all its members. Another member tells Marcy May: “There’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” There is truth here, since as living souls we exist beyond death (Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 3:4). But that is not to refute death or life.

Then there are the out-and-out lies. “You have to trust us,” Marcy May is told after she has been drugged and is about to be ritually raped. After the experience, her friend tells her that it was a beautiful thing; the first time with Patrick is to be savored and remembered. Since when is rape beautiful? When is rape love? Why would we trust a person who has been similarly brainwashed?

Worst of all, perhaps, is the statement by Patrick that “death is love”. This is so contrary to biblical precepts it reminds us of Satan’s wooing of Eve (Gen. 3:2-4). God formed life at creation. He did not bring death into the world. Death entered our reality after the first humans followed Satan’s lie and disobeyed God’s command. To Adam God said, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). Death is the opposite of life. Death is not love. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and God offers life (Jn. 1:4), not death.

Along with the brainwashing is the mistreatment of women. Patrick and the men treat them as second class citizens. They are subservient to them, almost creatures whose role (“You will find your role” is a common statement) is to provide pleasure and breed babies (only boy babies though). In contrast, the Christian community founded in the church elevated the status of woman, giving them an equality in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

The acting by the two lead characters is stellar. Hawkes, who featured as a support in last year’s independent and moodily similar best-film nominee Winter’s Bone, is chilling as the cult leader. He exudes confidence but quietly controls all those under his care. He is a villain in the mold of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. Against this, Olsen portrays the out-of-touch Martha with a credibility that is undeniable. As Hawkes earned an Oscar nomination last year, Olsen should be similarly rewarded for her work here. In contrast the rest of the actors are mostly throwaways, not being given enough to work with. Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic), more often seen in period-piece costume as the handsome British gentleman, has little to do except provide a picture of the normal husband, to contrast with Patrick. But that is all the film really needs.

As Martha tries to come back to normal life, she finds the distance too much. She simply does not know what normal is. And to Lucy and Ted, she is abnormal, mentally damaged in need of professional help. It reminds us that through subtle brainwashing, cults can create a warped norm that we accept as reality. Once accepted, control is accomplished. Marcy May and the other women accepted Patrick’s every command as perfectly normal and when he requires crime they do not blink an eye. He has conquered their will.

As the film moves towards its climax in the final act, the tension is high and we wonder how it will end. And when the ending comes, it is as sudden as a car crash. And it is ambiguous, leaving us wondering if the final scene is a dream or a dark reality portending something worse. Like another independent film, Take Shelter, this is a film that stays with you as you try to fathom the ending. This is a disquieting film, one not for the faint of heart, but one that shows the inner workings of a cult.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs


  1. This movie looks very creepy and Elizabeth looks so much like her sisters! I am very excited to be watching this movie. My co-worker from DISH said she liked it; it was weird, creepy and disturbing. So I told her count me in, I already ordered it on Blockbuster @Home. I should be receiving it in the mail soon. I can't wait to watch it. I have read some great reviews on it.

  2. Loved the flick (x2), however, there is NO WAY the ladies are into an alpha-male like that David Koresh-type dude. It simply beggars the imagination that ANY woman (excepting the mentally ill) could stomach a powerful, violent, creepy 'leader.' Could there be historical precedent for such attraction among non-defective ladies? oh, right... Presidents, Fuhrers, Senators, Crack-heads, Abusers, Junkies, Novelists, Drunks, Investors... [sigh.]