Film Review: 

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene

ICSA Today, 3(2), 2012, 22-23

Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Reviewed by Rebecca Parks

Release Date (United States): October 23, 2011; 102 minutes. Screenplay written and directed by Sean Durkin. Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, and Hugh Dancy. Rated R.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the only movie about cults I’ve seen that shows clearly how a cult operates and the damage it can do. Writer/director Sean Durkin did his homework. In an interview, he describes how, when he mentioned the film project to a friend, she confided that she had been in a cult and told him her story. His intimate familiarity with the subject matter comes through in every scene.

We meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) on the day she flees from the group. She quietly walks out while the others are sleeping and then makes a run for it into the forest across the road. Later, another member catches up with her in a diner, and she convinces him that she just needs time alone. A distraught call from her to her estranged sister brings her back into the outside world.

The rest of the movie alternates between scenes at Martha’s sister’s summer lake house and flashbacks to the cult. Although Martha is out of the cult, the cult is still within her. Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy), having no idea where she has been for the past 2 years, find her behavior baffling and exasperating. She has lost her sense of what the outside world considers normal. She swims nude where other lakefront residents can see her, makes inappropriate comments about sex, sleeps a lot but restlessly, and has intense emotional outbursts in response to seemingly innocuous events such as being offered a drink at Lucy’s party. Lucy tries to get Martha to talk, but Martha can't do so, partly because of unresolved issues between them and partly because Martha is too overwhelmed.

The flashbacks tell the story of how Martha was drawn into the cult, which at first seems like a picturesque farm where everyone shares the work and lives simply and like a family. The young men and women seem warm, inviting. Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult leader, seems to exert his authority quietly, looking after everyone with an engaging charm. Patrick gives Martha a new name, Marcy May. The love-bombing is effective: Marcy May stays.

After Marcy May has settled in, the group tells her she needs to open up more to them. This opening up begins with the cult leader drugging and raping her, which is reframed as an initiation and “cleansing” rite by another female member who acts like a teenager wanting to share a schoolgirl crush. In later scenes, it’s clear that partners are interchangeable, but the leader has his favorites. Patrick likes Marcy May enough to write a song about her.

Patrick is even charming as he teaches Marcy May how to fire a gun by visualizing someone who has hurt her. Somewhat uneasily, she accepts the sex and the guns. But when she learns how the cult funds and protects itself, she breaks down. Patrick first rationalizes his actions in terms of life, death, love, and Nirvana. When that doesn’t work, he yells at her to get over it, then says maybe he should expect less from her; then he embraces her and says she’s his favorite. He covers much of the typical cult leader’s manipulative repertoire in just these two scenes.

This movie shows how a cult entices a new member, slowly reveals its true nature, invades the member’s mind one belief at a time, and alternates disturbing demands with Utopian promises. It also shows how outsiders can misunderstand a former cult member if they don’t know what happened. All of the actors are superb, especially Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. I highly recommend Martha Marcy May Marlene for educating people about cults.

About the Author

Rebecca Parks is an independent singer-songwriter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She released her first CD, Night Ship, in 2004 and her second, Messiah Refugee, in 2011.  She has performed at two ICSA conferences: Philadelphia in 2008 and Denver in 2009. For more about Rebecca and her music, see