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Film: Martha Marcy May Marlene

"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?"

A 2011 independent Psychological Thriller film, written and directed by first-timer Sean Durkin and starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy.

It concerns itself with a young woman named Martha (Olsen), who calls her estranged sister Lucy (Paulson) in a panic, asking her to collect her from a small town in the Catskill Mountains. Lucy does so, and Martha goes to stay with Lucy and her husband Ted (Dancy). Unbeknownst to either Lucy or Ted, Martha has been a member of a sinister hippie cult for the past two years, led by the charismatic but mysterious Patrick (Hawkes). Her experiences with the cult are revealed in flashback.

The film was well-received, picking up a directorial award at Sundance. Critics particularly praised the unsettling storyline and the performances by Olsen and Hawkes, with many especially surprised by Olsen's performance, considering who her sisters are (in his review, Roger Ebert quipped that "Elizabeth Olsen can know that no one will ever ask, 'Which one is she?'").


Tropes in the film:

  • Affably Evil: Patrick is extremely charismatic and friendly, which makes him even more terrifying than he would otherwise be.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Some of the things the cult believes in are merely offensive and backward, but others are so bizarre that they fall straight into this trope.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The film ends with Lucy and Ted driving Martha to a mental hospital, with another car driving behind them. The car may or may not be driven by one of the members of the cult.
  • Brainwashed: In the traditional sense. Even after Martha has grown disillusioned with the cult and escaped, she still finds herself reciting their beliefs verbatim at times, and generally is unable to unthink the cult's unique perspective on life.
  • Break the Cutie: Martha herself.
  • Cult: Obviously.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The film goes out of its way to highlight how Martha's relationship with Patrick is akin to an abusive, romantic one (for example, she never tells Lucy that she was involved with a cult, insisting that the last two years were merely spent with a boyfriend who lied to her). She also sees him as a father figure. Commence Squick now.
  • Drone of Dread: A large portion of the soundtrack, what exists of it. There is not a lot of external music in the soundtrack beyond songs by the cult members.
  • Dull Eyes of Unhappiness: Martha for large parts of the film in the present day.
  • Fauxshadow: Patrick teaching Martha to fire a gun suggests she may need to use a gun again at some point (nope). Martha's fondness for swimming in the lake and her sister's caution that the day is quite cold for swimming suggests that she might meet a watery end (also nope).
  • Gainax Ending: A man who the audience has never seen before shows up to watch Martha swimming and then follows Lucy and Ted's car. Is he a member of the cult? Or is Martha just hallucinating? Did a cult exist in the first place, or did Martha imagine the whole thing? Is the whole movie symbolism for an abusive relationship?
  • How We Got Here: The film alternates between Martha in the present and flashbacks to her time with the cult. However, in keeping with the film's Through the Eyes of Madness-approach, the film's account of her time with the cult is rather vague and indistinct.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: It's a test of loyalty rather than evil-ness, but otherwise follows this trope practically to the letter.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: While not offensive, the title's certainly a bit of a mouthful.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: See Raised by Wolves.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: The cult initially seems like a fairly harmless bunch of hippies, with some at least defensible ideas about leaving behind material possessions and cleansing one's body of toxins. But they are soon revealed to be much nastier than that.
  • Meaningful Rename: Patrick gives all the female members of the cult (and presumably the men too) new names upon their joining.
  • Mental Story: A good half of the film consists of Martha's memories (which may or may not be entirely accurate).
  • Monochrome Casting: Every character is white, although this may be in keeping with the racial demographics of the setting (primarily the Catskills Mountains).
  • Mystery Cult: Martha doesn't seem to really know much about what the cult believes in when she joins.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Several of the movie's trailers make it appear to be much more fast paced and action heavy than it is.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: There are numerous scenes which are impossibly tense despite the fact that practically nothing is happening onscreen.
  • Not Using the Z Word: The word "cult" is never mentioned in the film.
  • Painting the Medium: One of the only fade-outs in the film comes when Lucy and Ted give Martha tranquillizers to help her sleep when she becomes hysterical at a party. The film fades out as she starts to fall asleep.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Despite their largely socialist/transcendentalist ideologies, Patrick and his cult have decidedly... traditional views of gender roles.
  • Properly Paranoid: It's left ambiguous as to whether Martha is this or just flat-out paranoid.
  • Psychological Thriller
  • Raised by Wolves: Martha has been a member of the cult for so long that she's forgotten all about basic social niceties such as not climbing into bed with your sister while she's having sex with her husband.
    • Martha also jumps into a lake naked, which she considers normal, versus wearing a bathing suit. Her sister screams at her to get out of the water as not to disturb neighbors and/or their children. It's shown in flashback that the cult's female members swim without clothes.
  • Rape as Drama: See Sex as Rite-of-Passage.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: As Ted's patience with Martha wears thin, he launches into one for her at dinner.
    Martha: It's not your fault you choose to measure your success by money and possessions. It's just not the right way to live.
    Ted: It's not the right way to live? What is the right way to live exactly? Martha, what is the right way to live? Is it vanishing off the face of the earth and not calling your family for two years or until they're worried sick about you? Is that the right way to live? Or is it living without possessions until you actually need some and turning up on our doorstep where you know you can get some? Is that the right way to live? You sit there lecturing us about our lives, and so far I have not witnessed one sign that you have any values of your own. You should remember, Martha, you are living under my roof, and you are eating my food, and you should watch your mouth because you are rude!"
    • Martha has a Kick the Dog moment for her sister at the end:
      Martha: You're going to be a terrible mother.
  • Sanity Slippage: Martha initially doesn't come across as particularly upset by her experiences with the cult (although she's very eager to leave them behind), but over the course of the film the audience soon learns that she is much more traumatised by her experiences than she first appears.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Part of the induction process for the female members is to be drugged and raped by Patrick.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The credits.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: It's left ambiguous as to whether Martha really is being followed by members of the cult or not. Additionally, it's hinted (as the page quote indicates) that some of her memories of the cult might be distorted or outright imagined.
  • Unreliable Narrator: See Through the Eyes of Madness.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Martha has been a member of the cult for several weeks, but Patrick says that to properly embrace the cult she'll need to let her guard down and "share" herself.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The cult is loosely inspired by the Manson "family". This is primarily in terms of the family's recruitment methods and the activities they carried out together, and less in terms of their beliefs - Patrick makes no mention of possessing any racially-oriented beliefs, for example. Patrick himself is practically an Expy of Manson: like Manson, Patrick is a folk guitarist, and John Hawkes bears more than a passing resemblance to the man himself.
    • Notably though, despite no mention of racial beliefs, all of the cult members are Caucasian (see Monochrome Casting).
  • Wham Line: It's said totally casually, which just makes it more disturbing in its implications: when a new recruit comments that all of the babies at the compound are male, Martha replies "[Patrick] only has boys." Uh...what?
  • Word Salad Title: Although It Makes Sense in Context. Martha is the protagonist's real name and "Marcy May" is what Patrick christens her upon her induction into the cult. Additionally, when answering the phone, all male members of the cult are instructed to use the name "Matthew Lewis" so as to avoid revealing their identities, while all female members are to go by "Marlene Lewis". Hence, "Martha Marcy May Marlene".

KomaPsychological ThrillerMemento
Mars Of DestructionNeeds Wiki Magic LoveMarvin
Margin CallFilms of the 2010sMars Needs Moms

alternative title(s): Martha Marcy May Marlene
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