Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers for 'Martha Marcy May Marlene.’
Content warning: This article includes mention of sexual assault.
Indie–drama and psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary on October 21. The alliterative title alludes to the various identities of the female protagonist, played by a 21–year–old Elizabeth Olsen in her film debut. Conveying complex emotions entirely through her eyes in some close–ups, Olsen pulls off a convincing portrayal of a cult victim in this beloved cult classic.
The film opens with a rural scene as the viewer is enveloped by the sounds of nature. The men and women of the community, not yet identified as a cult, take turns eating at the dinner table, elbows grazing elbows; the atmosphere is solemn but cozy. The tranquility soon dissipates as we witness the protagonist make an attempted escape through the woods. Here, the hints of a cult begin to emerge: She hides from a group of women, all of whom are dressed uniformly in jean shorts and white t–shirts that are one size too big.
A man tracks her down at a roadside restaurant, addressing her as “Marcy May.” Her inability to meet his eyes indicates a clear discomfort with his presence, for reasons unknown, but his gentle confrontation implies that the cult operates on values of trust and concern (read: guilt–tripping). Later on, she makes a phone call to a woman who calls her “Martha,” but her speech comes out fragmented, revealing an internal conflict that pervades the film—her instinct to get as far away as possible from this cult while battling against a fabricated conviction that she is exactly where she’s meant to be. “I have to go back,” she whispers in a trembling voice.
Eventually, she’s picked up by the woman—her sister, Lucy—and driven to Lucy and her husband Ted’s vacation lake house in Connecticut. Defection from the cult, it appears, was the easy part; her recovery and untreated psychological trauma constitutes the majority of the film and is what leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. Thrusted back into everyday life, she displays aberrant behavior: skinny dipping in broad daylight, prying into her sister’s sex life, and seeking permission from Ted (“Can I go swimming?” she inquires while inches away from the lake).
As the film progresses, we learn the origin of these habits: Patrick, the cult leader (played by John Hawkes), commands total authority over the women in the cult and expects them to adopt a domesticated lifestyle where each woman serves a role, be it knitting, cooking, or farming. He strips them of their identities, giving them new names upon arrival and asserting his dominance in their lives. The women are to use the name “Marlene” when answering calls, suggesting that they are interchangeable and treated as a collective as opposed to individuals in their own right. It is therefore unsurprising that they sleep on the same bed and share a wardrobe.
In the present, Martha refuses to drink or smoke, having internalized the cult’s teachings, and she conveys her innermost, unfiltered thoughts—providing comedic relief to counteract the somber atmosphere. She is in a constant state of lethargy and absent mindedness, but it is not until the flashbacks of physical abuse that we realize the extent of her desensitization. The most twisted part of the film is not the utter violation of her body, but the way she is manipulated into believing it was “special.” The solidarity of shared experience is used by a cult member to justify the act of rape, followed by the phrase “you have to trust us.”
And there it is–the perfect front for tyranny. By claiming to have a community founded on faith and trust, the cult is able to abuse said trust to the fullest extent. Blind trust permits arbitrary rules and arbitrary punishments for not abiding by those rules. Other significant characteristics of cults include “charismatic leaders,” “coercive persuasion,” and “sexual and other exploitation of group members,” according to renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. These features manifest themselves in the movie through the charming–yet–predatory Patrick and restrictions of certain freedoms masked as concern for the cult members’ wellbeing. Underneath it all is the perverted desire to control and oppress.
The fluid transitions between scenes set it up such that our confusion about whether we’re observing the past or present echoes that of Martha. This puts a unique spin on flashbacks within the movie, which is appropriate given the director’s distaste for the conventional use of flashbacks. In addition, Martha’s conflation of time and space in the exchange—"How far are we?” “From what?” “Yesterday.”—solidifies the idea that she’s stuck in her traumatic past.
Alongside cult movies and TV series like Hereditary, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, Martha Marcy May Marlene reveals uncomfortable truths about the human psyche. The key takeaway is that cults appeal to the most vulnerable version of ourselves. Zoë Heller argues in a New Yorker article that “acknowledging that joining a cult requires an element of voluntary self–surrender also obliges us to consider whether the very relinquishment of control isn’t a significant part of the appeal.” Wanting to feel entirely dependent on and accepted by a community is a human desire, and one that is unfortunately exploited. Bombarding the victim with attention and love—a tactic psychologists refer to as “love–bombing”—is how seeds of trust are planted and a feeling of obligation is instilled in the victim.
The memeification of cults in popular media has blinded us to the tangible threats they pose and has been justified by the shared belief: “I would never join a cult because I’m not batshit crazy.” The problem, however, is that cults appeal to universal desires for love and acceptance and frequently rope people in via what are perceived to be innocuous social gatherings. Martha’s moments of lucidity provide a compelling argument for the general susceptibility to cultism, for we are discouraged from labelling her as the type of person to be easily indoctrinated.
While traditional cults still exist—NXIVM, for example—modern day cultism presents itself in a much more insidious form. Social media, for one, is the perfect platform for “charismatic leaders” to recruit members, breeds the us–vs–them mentality, and enables one to disconnect from reality. Cultism and political polarization go hand in hand, making it all the more important that we can distinguish between the neutral transfer of information and the strategic dispensation of it. Martha Marcy May Marlene teaches us to be wary of appeals to innate human desires, for no one is exempt from the claws of cultism.