What happens to people who escape cults and try to get back to a more conventional existence? Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene explores the difficulties for one ex-cult member and her family.
Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha who can be seen leaving a Manson Family style cult tucked away in rural Upstate New York in the early hours of the morning. After an awkward encounter with a “family” member at a local diner she plucks up the courage to call her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) who she has not contacted since joining the cult two years previously. Martha may have escaped, but her problems really only begin at Lucy’s Connecticut lakeside house.
Martha’s paranoia and unconventional behaviour is in some way explained by regular cuts to experiences within the cult. John Hawkes portrays the Charles Manson like leader Patrick who sexually initiates all new female members of the cult – the women are prepared for this by being drugged and left alone and drowsy in a room awaiting his arrival. Martha was asleep when she was “initiated”.
Martha has trouble sleeping alone at Lucy’s house, largely because she shared rooms and beds with numerous people before her escape. She climbs into bed with her sister and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) which highlights with great clarity that she has not adjusted to everyday life and no longer understands boundaries.
At a party hosted by her sister she believes someone from the cult has followed her – her paranoia had escalated since her departure. It takes a number of episodes before Lucy and Ted recognise that Martha needs professional help.
This is a confident feature length debut for director Sean Durkin – character studies are no longer common place in modern cinema.
Elizabeth Olsen gives a strong, subtle and mature performance and leads the film with confidence. It is surprising that she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Elizabeth appears to have an indie career path ahead of her, perhaps following the lead of Michelle Williams.
The film could have better explained how Martha came to join the cult. Some of the “family” members, as well as leader Patrick could have been developed further.
This is an intense film that keeps the viewer hooked throughout by it’s regular flashbacks to explain Martha’s behaviour.