Cult movies are nothing new to the film world. From “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Children of the Corn” to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to even “Hot Fuzz,” there’s no shortage of the portrayals of brainwashed people. But usually, the cults in question are fantastic and outlandish – they perform human sacrifice! They kill all the adults! They worship Satan! – and hardly anyone seems particularly eager to leave, other than the outsiders. It seems like a complete fantasy.
So when real life people come forward and say they were in a cult – and perhaps even committed atrocities in the name of said cult – our predominant examples are from the extremes, either from film or history. The Manson Family. Jim Jones. David Koresh. But what “Martha Marcy May Marlene” does is take the hysteria down a notch, and give a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be in a cult, what it’s like to leave, and how difficult it is to readjust to everyday life in the immediate aftermath, through the eyes of a character whose name changes according to her environment, played by Elizabeth Olsen.
“It’s fun to forget about societal norms and just create within the world that was provided in the script,” Olsen told IFC.
“The word ‘cult’ is loaded,” said John Hawkes, who plays the cult leader. “I’ve never been a fan of cults. There’s a Manson movie they keep trying to make, I’ve been asked to be a part of it, and that’s not a story I’m interested in being a part of. But this story is more interesting to me because it’s not told through the leader’s eyes, but through a young woman and her struggle.”
“It’s that first two weeks after someone gets out of a situation, when it’s completely alive for them,” said actor Hugh Dancy, who plays Martha’s brother-in-law. “What you might call a flashback [in the movie] is much more than a flashback, because it’s happening in her mind simultaneously. She’s still kind of living through this experience, and she doesn’t understand it. She’s kind of fractured.”
First-time director Sean Durkin was aided in his script by a friend who had escaped a cult herself, and shared her experience with him. “The film isn’t about her,” he said, “but she shared her emotional journey, and what it was like after she left, so I could understand what she was going through. It was also about the tactics that they used to induct her and keep her there: the re-naming, the eating habits, the way when something happens that’s bad, someone’s there to tell you it’s OK.”
For instance, in the cult Martha joins – where she becomes Marcy May and sometimes Marlene – only one meal a day is served, and at that meal, the men eat first, and only after they’re done can the women eat. “There’s this strange sense of hierarchy and rigidity within their apparent liberal lifestyle,” Dancy observed.
Quarters are tight, so people sleep in sex-segregated rooms, sharing beds and mattresses – save for orgy night, when sleeping arrangements are a free for all. Consequently, when she leaves the cult, Martha has a bit of confusion about eating in front of the opposite sex, sleeping alone, and when nudity is appropriate (or not). At one point, she crawls into her sister’s bed – while the sister is having sex with her husband – with no idea that they might have a problem with her behavior.
“It’s kind of humorous, because he’s incredibly pissed off, which seems entirely reasonable!” Dancy laughed. “This is his sister-in-law who he’s only known for a few days, and she’s crawling into the marital bed, while it’s in use?”
“We accept a lot of things as fact,” Olsen said, “but you know, just eating breakfast in the morning in front of a man? Those were different things that she wasn’t used to, for years. I thought of it like how when people go live in a foreign country, and they come back with all these new habits. This is an extreme case of that. That’s what clashes, the challenges within those different, everyday aspects.”
“All this stuff that we consider normal has been beaten out of her,” Dancy explained. “Not literally, but she has been taught to question everything that she might take for granted, and to question anybody who shows her what we would consider normal affection.”
How does that even happen in the first place? And why would any reasonably intelligent person allow any form of mind control happen to them, one might ask? Yet the way Martha’s portrayed, she’s no idiot.
“What kind of people join cults?” Durkin said. “All kinds of people, at all stages of their lives, from all different backgrounds. I didn’t want people to say she got into it because she’s weak, because it’s not like that. I felt really strongly about that.”
“I think the idea that people can be manipulated and controlled and preyed upon in that way is unsettling, not least because it doesn’t happen just to the marginalized,” Dancy said. “It happens to people who are intelligent and apparently in the mainstream. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Certainly, the fact that sociologists haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific personality type likely to fall victim to a cult suggests that all people are vulnerable, especially when warmth, acceptance, and a new “family” are offered. Later on, it’s suggested that you should sever ties from your real family, friends, and other relationships, because they’re a waste of energy.
“There are certain people who know how to take advantage of the chinks in our armor,” Dancy said, “when we’re not quite sure of ourselves and wanting to be loved. And part of that is introducing doubt about everybody. That is a form of control.”
The cult leaders encourage dependence on the group – sharing – to minimize independence and break down former identities – hence Martha’s renaming to Marcy May. And the group usually lives in an isolated area, to operate out of view of society, which is why the cult scenes in the film take place in the Catskills.
“We were really isolated up there,” Olsen said. “No internet, no cell phones.”
“There was one landline,” Hawkes said. “Every day during the van ride back to the hotel, at one point in the journey – the same point every time – we’d hear all this buzzing and beeping as everyone’s electronics suddenly came to life. The isolation made it really easy for us to imagine what it would be like to live there.”
All of those conditions – the isolation, the new identity, the severing of ties – takes place before any real abuses begin. In Martha/Marcy May’s case, she’s initiated into a sexual practice where each girl is drugged and then made to have sex with the cult leader Patrick in a strange ritual. “Lizzie and I had some very intense scenes,” Hawkes said. “Every time, after every take, when the director called ‘Cut!’ we would just check in with each other: ‘How are you feeling?’ To Lizzie’s credit, she was very game, very brave.”
Eventually, Martha/Marcy May is so controlled by the cult that she helps another young girl get “initiated” by Patrick, without seeming to remember her own experience as a bad one. It isn’t until the cult turns violent that she realizes she’s got to escape – and the film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins.