Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Wow. This was interesting. The second film I’ve seen in a year about a religious cult led by dangerous charismatic patriarch, this was much more powerful than Red State. This cult is not a Christian one (at least as far as we can see) but more resembles something like ‘The Family’ and other pick’n’mix cults that use vague injunctions to some kind of higher power and goodness whilst interpreting what constitutes goodness so much on obedience that its devotees can only continue due to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from the cult and rings her older sister, Katie (Maria Dizzia) who she hasn’t seen for two years. Katie is now married to Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they’re taking a break from their high-stress city lives in a rented lakeside luxury cabin. Martha’s previous two years have been lived in a communal primitivism so Katie and Ted’s conventionally wealthy lifestyle is a challenge for Martha. Through flashbacks we see Martha’s process of indoctrination into the cult and the reasons for her running away, intercut with the ‘present day’ story of her trying to repress her fears of what has passed.

The indoctrination is really interesting, even if cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) lacks the obvious charisma and sense of power that Michael Parks brought to Red State, though this is the better film. Without a really powerful central figure, the cult is slightly less immediately convincing – we don’t feel the attraction – though the incrementally growing responsibility of devotees for indoctrinating newer recruits rang true, as did the escalating level of activity in the cult’s more secretive activities as cult members became more assimilated. Initially apparently benign, by the time cult members are aware of the more morally repugnant and sinister aspects of their community, they are implicated and too invested to withdraw easily. This gradual revelation, both to Martha (renamed by Patrick as “Marcy May” as part of the indoctrination process, and hence the title) and to us creates a growing sense of menace as Martha realises they might know where she now is.

Olsen, as Martha, is superb. She has that “old soul in a young body” that Kirsten Dunst and Scarlett Johansson had in their early films, which really sells the idea of someone who’s been through trauma and has buried secrets, and she makes the transitions between naïf and survivor utterly believable, and the sexualisation of her youth is disturbing (as it, of course, is meant to be here). This is a pretty open-ended film, of which one cinema-goer complained though I liked, and the developing fear of Martha is infectious, making for a pretty scary finale.

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