I recently rewatched MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (streaming on STAR at DisneyPlus) and got even more out of it the second time. This hidden gem tells the story of a young woman struggling to cope with life after leaving a cult.
Twenty-two-year-old Martha flees a farmhouse in which a group of people are living. She calls the only family she has left, which is her sister, who picks her up and takes her to her vacation home next to a lake, where she’s staying with her husband. Martha acts bizarrely, alternately terrified and defiantly clinging to the ideals of the group she lived with. Martha has a long, hard road ahead of her to stay away from the group and grasp a new life.
The film may strike some as a bit surprising in its take. Many of us associate cults with Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple or Heavens Gate, wild-eyed and smiling fanatics forcibly brainwashing others with bizarre, grisly rituals. In most cults, and there are an estimated thousands of them in the USA, most are only a few members at most, and they don’t seem that weird at first glance. They all have certain things in common, though: a lofty unifying ideal, recruitment, love bombing new initiates, psychological manipulation and dependency, and a charismatic figure who requires obedience.
At first, Martha’s group appears to be a bunch of idealistic young people who want simple, communal living without technology. If you asked Martha when she joined, I doubt she’d say she knew she was joining a cult. The more we learn through her flashbacks, the more we discover her group is in fact a cult, a cult being defined as a group that controls and harms its members and harms its community. And when she leaves, it’s not because she recognizes the whole thing as insane or evil. It’s not strategic. Most decisions by cult members to leave is far more tactical, dealing with methods or how they’re treated by others. When they do leave, they often become depressed, purposeless, unable to think for themselves. We see all this very subtly in Martha’s story, which is roughly based on cult survivors’ accounts.
On a side note, John Hawkes nails the role of the cult leader who dominates every aspect of the lives of the group, and Elizabeth Olsen chews the scenery in her debut role as Martha.
Overall, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a powerful film about how people get into cults, what it’s like to be in one, and that when you leave the cult, it may never leave you.