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Film Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The issue of cults, and the vulnerability of young people, seems to have disappeared from the news. Up to perhaps 15 years ago, there was much coverage of the Hare Krishnas, Rajneesh, the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology, Heaven's Gate, Eckankar, the LaRoucheites, Peoples' Temple (Jim Jones), and many more. California, especially the Bay Area, seemed particularly fertile ground. Now we rarely read about these cults, perhaps because many have simply disappeared or become relics, and newspapers are doing far less investigative reporting due to widespread newsroom cutbacks. Although many of the cults have faded, not so with Scientology, buoyed by a few Hollywood stars, who seem to be nearly as strong and well financed as ever, and routinely sue over any coverage that they consider adverse. But what sort of person becomes involved in these cults, how did they leave, and what were the after effects? Much has been written about the techniques used to recruit members, which tend to target lonely, disaffected younger people. These cults are characterized by deceptive, manipulative behavior, and seek to sever the new member's outside relationships, convincing them that their only chance of happiness is continued association with the group, and creating a strong dependence on the group. In addition, cults often are abusive and violent, both toward their own members and the outside world, whom they view as threatening and corrupt. Invariably these cults are lead by a highly charismatic person, who has absolute control over the group. Those that manage to leave often have great difficulty in re-integrating themselves back into mainstream society, and their distress may last for many years. Some of these former members probably experience a form of PTSD.

With this as background, Sean Durkin has produced an impressive first film, "Martha Marcy May Marlene", which looks at a young woman's experience as she struggles to regain a normal life after escaping from a cult. The film opens with scenes of life in what looks like an idyllic commune in Upper New York State: people tending gardens, goats walking about, little children toddling around, with a background of a picturesque barn, green hills, and forest. We see men eating at a communal table, with the group leader, Patrick (played by John Hawkes), at the head of the table. No women are at the table. They are waiting in the next room for the men to finish before sitting down to eat. The cooking and cleanup is done by the women as well. The women sleep on the floor of a room but seem happy and grateful for the leader's attention. Then we see Martha escaping, early one morning, running into a forest, pursued by some of the cult members. She reaches a restaurant in town, but one of the men finds her and tries to convince her to return. She refuses, and calls her older sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) for help. Her sister is astonished to hear from her, since she has not been in touch for the two years that she has been in the commune, and takes her to her house. Lucy has recently married, and is staying at a large vacation house with her husband on a lake in Connecticut. Martha settles in, in her own peculiar way, and soon becomes an issue with her sister's husband. Martha has been having flashbacks to her life in the commune, which was characterized by sexual abuse, a rigid adherence to the leader's wishes, and worse. She is clearly depressed, anxious, and beginning to have hallucinations, but her sister thinks this is because of a bad boyfriend experience. Her strange behavior is beginning to frighten her sister. The film follows her increasing disintegration, with an ending that will surely be debated.

Durkin has made a first rate psychological thriller with a disturbing story, and his frequent use of flashbacks increase the tension as the story progresses. The acting is excellent, with Elizabeth Olsen underplaying a very damaged woman, who is exposed in every sense of the word. John Hawkes is strong here, and his Patrick, the demonic leader of the commune, recalls his equally sinister portrayal of the Ozarks brother in "Winter's Bone". Good cinematography, from the country and lake scenes, to the dark flashbacks, with many closeups of Olsen in her anguish. The soundtrack consists of country style songs, all written for this film. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a fine film, with a strong narrative, whose ideas and images stay with you long after leaving the theater. Durkin is definitely a filmmaker with a future. Playing at the Kabuki.

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