Clever Manipulation: 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Although she escaped physically, Martha remains trapped by her past experiences and can’t sever the connection.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, and Brady Corbet
Distributor: Fox
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-02-21

Depicting a believable cult in a 100-minute feature is no easy proposition. The simplest approach would involve focusing on the more sensationalistic aspects of this group. That style would avoid the more frightening aspects of this situation, however. The methods used by the leaders to dominate the group are deliberate and take advantage of a specific personality type.

While many of us might think we’d never fall for this manipulation, we all have weaknesses that the right person could exploit. The subtle ways leaders transform the participants is the focus of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s intriguing 2011 film. It’s a difficult experience and takes a few missteps, but that tone matches the mental conflict of the lead character.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) returns to the world beyond the cult as a broken person who’s lost her ability to function properly. Her behavior seems completely normal at times, but her mind is a fragile instrument that’s a few steps away from falling apart. Although she escaped physically, Martha remains trapped by her past experiences and can’t sever the connection.

Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) have the best intentions, but there’s only so much turmoil they can handle. Moments in her present-day life send Martha’s brain back to her times in the cult, and part of her longs to return to the simplicity of that experience. Her past also brings serious danger to the family, who understand that she’s troubled but don’t realize the depths of her situation.

The most effective moments involve the indoctrination by the entire cult, including friendly women who contribute to the problems. Their leader is the magnetic Patrick (John Hawkes), an understated guy who knows exactly what he’s doing. When he meets Martha, he disarms her with kindness while gaining control by changing her name. Patrick writes a beautiful song for her and makes her comfortable, and then the next phase of the transformation begins.

It’s more than just sexual dominance and takes over every aspect of Martha’s personality. She quotes his lines exactly to her sister and doesn’t even realize she’s speaking his thoughts. Patrick is frightening because he doesn’t raise his voice and controls with clever manipulation. If he tried a more direct approach, it wouldn’t have the same effect because the new recruits would see through the ploy. Instead, they focus on the positive aspects of the group, and their minds ignore the mysterious and unsavory elements.

Hawkes is masterful in this role and is the perfect choice for the part. Patrick might not seem physically imposing, but he’s more frightening than a man twice his size.

There are a few issues that keep Martha Marcy May Marlene from being even more effective. Durkin takes the obvious approach to cut between the present and the past, and the device becomes tired by the story’s end. He also focuses so much on Elizabeth Olsen’s face that it becomes a claustrophobic experience. That effect is by design, but it seems overplayed and heavy handed during the emotional moments.

That said, the film is very good and includes two of the best performances from the past year. Elizabeth Olsen received tremendous acclaim for the breakout role and deserves every bit of it. It’s unclear if she’ll end up having a superb career, but the prospects seem likely after this performance. If we don’t feel for Martha, the story doesn’t work and would become grating very quickly. Olsen doesn’t make her a likable character, but we understand why she’s acting so difficult. The cult has accomplished a lot more than messing her up physically; it’s destroyed her personality and replaced it with a broken individual.

This Blu-ray release includes a large amount of extras, but most of them are shorter than five minutes. The one exception and best inclusion is Mary Last Seen, a 13-minute short film from Durkin that covers similar material. It clearly shows the way that a young guy pushes an unwitting girl into a cult. Shot with a similar style to this film, it’s equally chilling and definitely worth seeing.

The remaining extras mostly involve brief interviews with the cast and crew about the expected topics. “The Psyche of a Cult” brings in an expert to discuss how a cult typically functions. It’s a compelling subject but only gives a short overview during its five-minute running time. Another enjoyable feature is the music video for “Marcy’s Song”, the pivotal song from John Hawkes. This is the type of song that should be nominated for an Oscar. The video mostly shows Hawkes sitting in a chair and singing, but it’s great to have the entire song provided on the disc.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.