‘Martha’ a poignant exploration of cult phenomenon

At the beginning of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the title character—all those names are hers—flees a cult in rural upstate New York. In desperation, she calls her older sister Lucy, who’s had no idea of her whereabouts for the past couple of years. Lucy comes and picks her up, and takes her to the upscale Connecticut lake house she’s summering at with her Brit husband Ted.

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Played by Elizabeth Olsen, Martha—her original name—is affectless, so cowed she’s barely articulate. She’ll only tell her puzzled relations (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy) that she left a bad boyfriend, but she offers no details. We, however, get to see what happened to her, in a series of flashbacks. We see how, rudderless after mother’s death, Martha is drawn into the cult, and gradually, skillfully has her identity her stripped from her, even to the point of getting the new name “Marcy May” (“Marlene” comes later).

The group in question doesn’t seem to be religious in nature, though we aren’t given much of a sense of its ideology, or even if it has a very clear one. It’s more in the secular self-help line, with a streak of hippie-commune hedonism. Above all, it’s a cult of personality, and the personality in question is Patrick, played by John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone.

Patrick has a casual, friendly, yet faintly wounded manner, like somebody who’s sad that you don’t want to stay longer at his party, but before long we can see that this covers a bottomless emotional and sexual tyranny. Under the impressively patient, un-sensationalistic eye of writer/director Sean Durkin, we see Patrick lead his flock, with disturbing plausibility, into more and more sinister realms.

By the time Martha is in her sister’s care, she’s so accustomed to the cult’s mores that her behavior is shockingly inappropriate at times. She’ll strip naked for a swim, turn weirdly aggressive at the dinner table, even come and sit on the edge of Lucy’s bed while she and Ted are noisily making love.

Here, perhaps, is a small glitch in the film’s believability—Lucy and Ted understandably suspect that Martha is mentally ill, or maybe just intolerably obtuse. But it’s maddeningly apparent that if she once just said the word “cult,” or “group” or “compound,” everybody would slap themselves on the forehead and say “Oh, that explains it.” Since Martha had the clarity to see that she should run away and the courage to do so, that she would then decline to explain herself seems more like a dramatic strategy for maintaining suspense than a psychological trait.

Maybe, maybe not; in any case it’s a minor quibble. MMMM is a remarkable film, controlled, spooky and poignant. It has one of those frustratingly abrupt, literary-fiction-short-story endings that one gets in indies sometimes, but this is less irritating here than it was in, for instance, Meek’s Cutoff earlier this year.

Most notably, MMMM showcases some fine performances, by the chilling Hawkes, by Paulson and Dancy and several others, but above all by Olsen, the hugely promising younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Olsen brings to vivid and convincing life Martha’s struggle, both pathetic and heroic, to stay connected to original name.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is rated R and plays at Harkins Camelview.



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