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‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

No escaping the sordid sway of the sect

by Giovanni Fazio

You’re fed up with your family, your upbringing, your school, your social class. You don’t fit in and are reminded of it. The rules and social norms that other people seem to follow so blindly seem to you phony, trite, suffocating. You develop an attitude, a bit of psychological armor, and step off the treadmill.

You drop out, you start hanging around with a new circle of friends, people — beautiful people, as Tom Wolfe once pegged them — who get it, who are asking questions, trying to find new, more honest ways of living. You’re all questions, but there’s this one guy — a real hottie, actually — who seems to have all the answers. Money is a problem, but he has a house — a farm even! — and you’re welcome to stay; everyone there is like one big family anyway.

But wait —wasn’t family what you were trying to escape from? What’s up with all the rules? Isn’t this dude who runs the place — the leader, though no one uses that word — kind of creepy? Ah, no, that’s your issues talking, you’re the one with the problem, you need to learn trust, so you have to stay here until you do, and here, drink this magic potion for our cleansing ritual, don’t ask what’s in it. Now you’re afraid, but fear, the leader tells you, “is the most amazing emotion; … It creates complete awareness.” So deal with it and roll over, baby.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Rating
Director Sean Durkin
Run Time 102 minutes
Language English

This is the back story to “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a slow-burning indie about a young woman’s attempt to escape the clutches of a cult. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen — younger sister of twin tween celebs Mary-Kate and Ashley — plays Martha, a young woman who manages to flee the remote cult commune and place a call to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes Martha to her vacation home in upstate New York.

Lucy, along with her yuppie husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), try to make Martha welcome, but Martha clams up about where she’s been for the past two years or what happened, and is clearly in a precarious mental state. Her erratic behavior starts to grate on the couple; Lucy struggles to maintain her sisterly duty, while Ted becomes fed up with Lucy’s hippie platitudes, such as, “People don’t need careers; they should just exist.”

What gives the film its edge is the way that it continuously and fluidly cuts from the present into Martha’s past life in the commune, where she was known as Marcy May (renaming being one method for such groups to create a new, dependent identity for its members). This is not just a cute narrative trick, but one synced precisely with Martha’s mindset — certain visual or auditory cues trigger these flashbacks, and the viewer is constantly being shifted from the safe zone of Lucy’s well-decorated lakeside home to the sick mind-game world of the commune, where violence always lurks just a breath away.

Not since Todd Haynes’ “Safe” in 1995 has there been such a clear-eyed look at how some people can use all that self-help New Age psychobabble as a tool for manipulation. Shades of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh flutter across the screen, rooted in a masterful performance by John Hawkes. As he did in “Winter’s Bone,” Hawkes manages to create a character who is pure menace, his insane control-freak thinking lurking behind a gruff, man-of-the-land charisma. Hawkes is simply one of the best actors working in America today, but the rest of the cast nail it too, with Olsen and Paulson building a suitably baggage-freighted sibling rivalry and Brady Corbet showing up as a particularly creepy cultie.

First-time director Sean Durkin builds great tension from Martha’s fear that the cult is coming after her, and the viewer is never sure whether this is just paranoia or all too real. While “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may veer between being a suspenseful thriller and a character study, this being an independent film, it’s probably no surprise to say it ends up more as the latter.

Durkin, in the best Michael Haneke style, ends the film at exactly the point when you are most wanting to know what happens next. This is either an act of creative engagement — leaving the viewer on a note of sustained tension — or a frustrating cop-out, depending on your taste. What Durkin seems to be saying, though, is that the nightmare of cult programming never really ends; when you let people get inside your head, it’s hard to throw them out.