To Be Conscious of a Cult

Film review of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

skull5What makes a scary movie? And please, don’t say the Wayans brothers.

To induce fear successfully, a film must drill into our deep subconscious, slurp the murky liquor of willful unknowing up into daylight, then squirt it straight into the eyes of viewers – making them absorb realizations they don’t particularly care to acquire on their own. The hallmark of such a film is not that it makes you look, but that it absolutely refuses to let you look away.

That description fits the 2011 psychological drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to a T… though for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call this movie 4Ms.

The odd title of the flick is only a hint of the creativity involved in making this guided trek into the trauma-ridden mind of a youthful follower of a cult, located on a dilapidated farmstead in upstate New York. The eponymous Martha – played by Elizabeth Olsen – is a lovely girl seeking to cross over the metaphorical bridge into womanhood. But she gets stuck about midway. Confused, defensive, vulnerable and unformed, she’s seized upon by a master manipulator named Patrick – played by a supremely conniving and always convincing John Hawkes.

At first, Martha’s induction into the “family” makes her focus on new relationships, music, learning her way around a garden and a kitchen, then assuming some care of the collective’s infants. However the tide of her conversion inexorably begins to flow toward much darker matters: drugs and group sex, then robbery, violence and mayhem.

Though the film’s running-time is 141 minutes, it does feel a great deal longer. That’s a fabulous thing. Too much cinematic story-telling these days obsesses over hitting each highly-prioritized mark in a fast-paced three-act structure. In so doing, a movie can grow as boring and predictable as a pop tune.

However, 4Ms glories in a more jazz-like approach as it switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the commune – gradually turning from idyll to nightmare – and the period spent with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) once they’ve rescued her and brought her to live with them in a vacation cottage. Lucy and Ted only gradually come to see the flaming wreckage inside this apparently frail creature they’ve clasped to their bosom.

The jazz-like development of the story-line is underscored by a major emphasis on the sound edit. Over the film’s course, the hammer-blows and ax-strikes of a rural commune struggling to build itself gradually become the thump of rocks flung onto a roof to distract a home-owner before a hit-squad from the commune invades his house for a robbery. The ring of a phone gradually inflicts terror, after use of phones becomes a means for the communards to track down Martha. And the crunch of a vehicle moving over gravel pursues Martha all the way to the film’s last, unsettling scene.

All of these changes and challenges are chronicled in Martha’s face, sweet but guarded, baffled and yearning, then – increasingly – shocked, numbed, and terrorized. Elizabeth Olsen won nine acting awards for this role, while achieving fifteen nominations for other prizes. I’d say she deserved all of them, and more.

Yet as far as I’m concerned, the palm for supreme achievement here must go to Sean Durkin, 4Ms’ writer and director. Fortunately, the Sundance Film Festival thought that, too. He’s the one who assembled all the parts in this chilling and profound work of story-telling. It’s my belief that story-tellers working in any medium, including prose fiction, can learn a incredible amount from the way Durkin approached his subject and managed to accomplish his goal. In an interview for the book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” he told author Robert K. Elder, “When I make a film, I think about things that scare me. My exploration of those things is to try and wrap my head around them and confront them.”

Which is also a formula for the way human society can encounter and absorb some of its most necessary stories. Now, more than four decades since Charles Manson and his band of marauders left their famously bloody handprints smeared across the American Southwest, we may finally be ready to see and hear what it actually means to fall under the sway of a masterful and determined, yet thoroughly demented manipulator. And finally understand how this damage, once accomplished, is extremely difficult to undo.

So. Why might this be such a scary message for us? It’s because, my dears, there’s far more than one type of cult.

Let’s give a listen to the lines that Patrick whispers to Martha, as he attempts to convince her that the murder she’s just watched being committed by her fellow communards during a home invasion should not bother her.

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right?… It brings you to now, makes you truly present. That’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So, death is pure love.”

If you’re able to watch that scene and audit that line without a shudder, I’ve got a job for you. I hear Dexter may be looking for an assistant.