PLOT: A young woman escapes from a cult, one lead by a charismatic man with a group of followers. She finds herself back in her sister’s life, and struggles to adjust to every day living. Haunted by the memories of the cult, her paranoia increases and she becomes more and more unstable.
REVIEW: To be honest nothing quite frightens me more as a person than having my identity stripped away and someone having enough power over me that they can convince me to believe anything they so desire. That is what cults do; they destroy a person’s identity, warp their beliefs and incite fear. This is the central premise for writer/director Sean Durkin’s film, and an extremely realistic and frightening one.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE begins with the title character Martha’s escape from a cult; the audience isn’t given any information about this. We simply see her sneak out of a house, but we can tell that something is a miss there. The house looks to be in a rural area, and we can clearly see the room she got out from is full of women sleeping in the same area. Once Martha has managed to get away, she is reunited with her sister. This is where things start to become worrisome, as Martha fears for her safety and she recalls the past two years of her life within the cult.
This film completely floored me, as it did with the entire Melbourne Film Festival audience. Normally, films get some sort of reaction at a film festival, applause or a round of boo’s. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE got neither, the entire audience sat silently as the credits rolled and no one really began to move for quite some time. This is the power of the film, one so realistic, and one so shocking and engaging, that you don’t want it to end. Then when it does, you just want to hit the rewind button, see it again and ponder the film all over again.
As I mentioned the film begins with an escape, once this happens the film goes for the past/present narrative, as Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen in a breakthrough performance) recalls and is haunted by her time within the cult. There are different relationships we see forming, Martha with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), Martha with her brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) and of course Martha with the cult and it’s leader Patrick (John Hawkes). The post-cult Martha is so accustomed to her old life, she has no sense of societal standards, she does things that seem odd and disturbing to her family, yet she isn’t able to come to terms with what she has been through in order to let them in. It is painful to watch, this is because it is engaging and automatically I felt sympathy for Martha and only wanted the best for her. As we see her introduction to the cult, she seems like a prime candidate, young and with no real sense of self, someone to be easily manipulated.
The cult itself at first doesn’t seem to be all that bad, a group of people mostly living off the land. Doing daily jobs and sustaining the household. But the more we see, the more we begin to understand that Patrick has a strong hold on the group, and they will do whatever he wants them to. He is charismatic, the type of person that draws people in, someone you don’t mind being around. With Martha, he makes her feel special, like the only person in existence. But this is a form of psychological abuse, and once he has that hold he can do what he likes. This is why people like Charles Manson managed to get followers, to the extent that they murdered for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sean Durkin used this example as one of the inspirations for the film.
The meat here is a psychological character study, the way the film is shot and edited, it really puts the viewer in Martha’s shoes. Her pain becomes our pain, as does her fear. There is a sense of it throughout the film, and one has to wonder now that she has gotten out, will she be found or will she go back herself? The hold the cult has over her is astounding, shocking and something that could easily rule her for the rest of her life.
This whole aspect wouldn’t work however if the role of Patrick hadn’t been a strong one. John Hawkes is one of the greatest actors working today, his performance as Patrick is something you really need to experience. My words, no matter how flattering can not do him justice. He sells it, in every which way; just as he enchants Martha, he enchants the audience. Equally though, Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic, a stunning performance, and once that will likely stick with you long after you have seen it.
The supporting cast while aren’t as superb as these two are all very solid. The chemistry between everyone was spot on, the tension needed between characters was there and then some. The script is strong, as is the direction by Durkin, he knew exactly how he wanted this to play out, and it worked. The film feels honest, like you know he did his research and perhaps had some kind of cult experience. With the film everything just clicked, the cast, the director and script, the crew. This is a film that hits all of its marks, and leaves you wanting more. It will disturb and frighten you, and it will leave you thinking about it for a long time. I honestly believe that Sean Durkin has a strong career ahead of him, and Ms Olsen will be the one from that family we will remember fondly.