Martha Marcy May Marlene

I finally watched this the other night, after a good friend recommended it more than a year ago. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an absorbing psychological thriller, but after it had ended I found myself wanting a little more.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story – mostly in flashback form – of young Martha’s (played by Elizabeth Olsen) time as part of a cult in the Catskill Mountains. In the film’s present Martha is staying with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) in a Connecticut lake house, and experiencing flashbacks. The tension increases as the flashbacks escalate to show us a cult that is violent and frightening. We see Martha being raped by the cult’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), and later see her lead a new girl through the same initiation process. There is a frightening scene in a forest where Martha is learning to shoot, and Patrick encourages her to kill a sick cat. One of the most chilling moments comes when, while holding one of Patrick’s children, Martha says to a new member: “He only has boys.”

Martha’s memories become more and more bizarre, finally culminating in a shockingly violent incident. This is what causes Martha to eventually run away from the group. Her experiences have left her frightened and paranoid – perhaps with good reason, but as viewers we are not sure. It is difficult to determine what is real and what is in Martha’s mind. She believes she is being followed, but is she really?

I really enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, and was interested to read afterwards that part of the inspiration for the film came from conversations the director (Sean Durkin) had with a friend who had left a cult. Durkin wanted to explore those first few weeks after leaving, and how paranoid someone could be.

I was a little disappointed to find out that Martha Marcy May Marlene wasn’t based on a specific cult, and I did feel that it presented a lot of stereotypes without diving deeper. However, as an entertaining and gripping drama it certainly succeeds.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, released in 2011, was written and directed by Sean Durkin. It is rated R for violence, sex, and language.

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