Directed by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Review: Cult’s are a strange phenomenon. That goes without saying, but there’s really is no other way to put it. Perhaps even more fascinating than cults are those that join them. What drives one to join a cult? Why do they stay? How do they not realize what’s going on? Such questions are plentiful and relevant. These questions are the focus of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’
Our main character (Olsen, yes the younger sister of the famous billionaire twins) goes by all four names from the title at different points in the movie. Born as Martha, when she meets Patrick (Hawkes), the leader of the group, he immediately says that she looks more like a “Marcy May.” Thinking of it as a pretty name she is instantly flattered. What she doesn’t realize is that is the first hook of the cult. Patrick, as their leader, instantly provides them with a new identity while at the same time securing his lordship over them with his own sadistic mental branding.
Patrick is instantly the kind of charismatic person who draws people in. He is equally able to make someone feel welcomed and fearful. This is a powerful interplay that allows someone to be the ‘leader’ of a cult. Such an attitude gets reinforced by the others within the group as they continue to put their faith in Patrick as someone who is enlightening them and won’t lead them astray.
Eventually Martha leaves the group. The circumstance under which she leaves is unclear, but she decides to go nonetheless. This happens early in the movie and the rest of the movie continues in a parallel storyline (as has become the norm it seems these days). The storylines chronicle her experience in the cult along with her adapting to normal life after she leaves the group.
As one would expect, Martha is deeply scarred from her experience. In the cult she is ritualistically raped by Patrick and told that it is “a good thing.” Eventually, she begins to believe these things and helps new women as they go through this process as well. The power of groupthink is a chilling aspect of cults. That enough people can enforce a belief just by enough people believing it is truly frightening. As a cult leader Patrick does things to the members and demeans them, yet they revere him ever more for it.
This is such a phenomenon that Martha finds it incredibly difficult to re-adjust to the normal world after leaving the cult. Patrick was a driving force in her life and made her feel important, that she was someone special, and the harsh reality of the real world is that there is nobody there to tell you that. Martha has a hard time dealing with this aspect.
After leaving the group Martha is picked up and cared for by her sister (Paulson). We start to get details regarding Martha’s life before going away to the cult. It starts to become apparent why Martha found life in the group appealing.
One night during dinner with her sister and her sister’s husband, Martha is confronted on her life. Martha is asked what she will do with her life. This angers Martha as she believes that you don’t have to be defined by what you “do” that there is beauty in existence and you can simply exist. This conversation presents some interesting dynamics.
It is unclear whether Durkin as a filmmaker is trying to make a commentary on the “cult” like realities of the world we live in. Do we all have aspects of our lives that are influenced by groupthink and we don’t even realize? Have certain beliefs become so acceptable in our life that we have become immune to the cult-like aspects of our everyday lives? The thought is further personified by the tying together of flashbacks with certain moments of Martha’s “normal life.” We see a flashback where they force drug use unknowingly upon a group member, and then see a scene were Martha is freaking out and the only way her sister can calm her down is by feeding her pills. Is the only difference in these instances that one came from a prescription while the other came from different means?
This is not to say that the filmmaker is trying to endorse the cult life. It is quite the opposite as cult life is portrayed as a mentally draining, soul crushing lifestyle. Rather, it goes to show how cult like behaviors in our own life might make it easier to fall into similar behaviors in a group setting. Especially when confronted with somebody as charismatic as Patrick who knows full well how to manipulate others and has the sociopathic mindset to allow him to do it.
Martha has to reconcile her past cult life and those norms with the standard normal of the “real world.” After being brainwashed, this is not an easy feat to overcome. Martha feels the weight of her cult experience in her everyday life. She no longer sees the world the same way. She also realizes that she will never be the same. Every experience she has had or will have will never be the same.
As Martha, Elizabeth Olsen has given a performance that has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz and deservedly so. Olsen is able to switch back and forth between young and promising teenager and scarred former cult member with ease. Even with all the switching we are still able to see the progression that Martha takes and how she goes from a once bright and sunny young girl to the tortured soul she has become.
Hawkes as the cult leader Patrick is frightening. He is such a good character actor that you never once think to yourself “that’s the guy from Winter’s Bone” or he feels like someone you’ve seen before. Jack Nicholson is a larger than life character and that shows through in each of his performances. Even with his great acting talent. Hawkes does not have that problem, diving deep into each role and each bit of character.
The writing is very sharp and the direction is smooth, if not a little confusing. After some deliberation the thoughts of the filmmaker become apparent, but in the moment the movie and lead one to confusion.
This is a disturbing movie that will stick with you long after you see it. Seeing this realistic portrayal of cult life is frightening. One should be prepared when going in to see this movie that they will feel uncomfortable multiple times throughout. However, if you are one that can stomach the darker side of humanity, then this is definitely worth your time.