Sunday, September 9, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene: A Cult Watcher's Dream

WHOA. I've finally had the honor of watching director Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene - the first of the recent releases on cultism - and I'm pretty sure (since I understand the subject matter better than most) I saw a very, very different film than other reviewers. Maybe even different than Durkin himself. You see, while Martha Marcy May Marlene has been described as Elizabeth Olsen's breakout performance about a young woman who escapes an abusive cult, it's much more than that:

It's really a film about a woman in desperate need of a deprogrammer's snapping.

A constant in the film is Martha's sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) asking Martha what's happened to her, and Martha - clearly in the throughs of PTSD - saying, "I don't know." And the truth is, she doesn't. Martha has no idea she's been in a cult, and neither her sister or her English brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy) even knows how to ask - both are as unaware of cultism as Martha is! When it's finally determined Martha needs "help," I deduced it'll be in the form of doctors - with medications in a mental health facility - not a cult expert who can unpeel the uber-rude onion her mind has become:

Their best guess is that Martha has fled a dodgy boyfriend, and she herself releases no further clues. Her conduct, however, hints at more than heartbreak. It is one thing to ask them, “Is it true married people don’t fuck?,” which might be no more than the provocative pose of youth; to climb into bed beside the married couple while they are making love—as Martha, schooled in group sex, naturally does—signals an insolence of another order. “That’s not normal, it’s private,” Lucy cries, and her verbal confusion pulls us toward the clever core of the movie. The easiest option, which would have produced a nifty horror flick but little else, would have been to build an ideal, love-warmed nest of the bourgeoisie and then, as in “Fatal Attraction,” have it invaded by shrieking demands from without. The effect of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” on the other hand, is to peck away at what Lucy and Ted would claim as their well-earned happiness. Even the tiniest gestures on Martha’s part—opening a can of beer and tossing the ring-pull aside, or trying on a dress and dropping the hanger for Lucy to pick up—are invested with something more warped, or more scornful of our regular habits, than simple sloppiness. Ted never makes a definite move on Martha, but you can sense the squirm of desire within him, and when he solemnly informs her, “We are trying to have a baby,” her laugh—rich, robust, and mad—slaps him into a look of wounded panic. She already has a family, ready-made. She may have slipped its grasp for now, but not for good. When, at a low ebb, she calls the number of the farm, speaks briefly, then slams down the phone, somebody calls right back.

Which brings me to something else that dawned on me as I watched Martha Marcy May Marlene - the disconnect many might have, as I write about cults or cultish thinking, imagining the "closed" secular cult depicted in this film is what I'm referring to when I, maybe, speak of an "open" religious cult like Mormonism (or even some other kind). Nothing could be further from the truth:

Sure, to me, a cult is a cult is a cult is a cult, all applying varying amounts of pressure in direct and subtle ways on those trapped (however) within their grasp. But the mindfuckers depicted in this film bear little-to-no resemblance to the cultish thinking we usually encounter (say, through Mitt Romney's Joseph Smith-inspired peddling of useless supplements) beyond talk of "cleansing," "toxins," and the nonsensical suggestion a drugged concoction is O.K. to drink because someone says it's "herbal."

This becomes most clear when the film enters Charles Manson's arena, though - unbeknownst to the uninitiated - contemporary Mormonism has entered that territory. A cult is a cult is a cult is a cult.

But what I most want you to know is, all that aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a truly fine film. Probably one of the best - if not THE best - I've ever seen on the topic of cultism, since it takes it's subject matter seriously, and doesn't fall into the typical sinister foolishness of The Devil's Rejects-type hyperbole, even as it descends beyond confusion and betrayal into wickedness and horror.

And while it may not be of much assistance if you're arguing with your sister about homeopathy, or fretting about a friend's participation in The Landmark Forum, hopefully Martha Marcy May Marlene might still convince some of you that even they need a higher level of comprehension and training than either you, or your average therapist, can provide. Yes indeed, this one is really special:

Check. It. Out.

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