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Film / Martha Marcy May Marlene

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"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.

Tropes in the film:

  • Affably Evil: Patrick is extremely charismatic and friendly, which makes him even more terrifying than he would otherwise be.
  • Alliterative Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene.
  • Arc Words: Martha refers to herself as a "teacher and a leader", which we find out Patrick called her in the past.
  • 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.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: A particularly explicit example (and a rare one where this trope isn't played for laughs). After flashing back to the time she helped prepare the next new female recruit for Patrick's sexual pleasure, Martha is shown from behind, sleeping on the floor next to the bed, as her nightgown gets wet; when she awakens afterward she takes it off and tries to hide it under the bedsheets. Later dialogue (see quote above) suggests the flashback was a dream she was having.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: At the beginning of the movie, Martha explains her lack of contact with Lucy over the last two years by saying she lost her cell phone and "got used to living without it."note  All the other phones we see in the movie are land lines. Justified perhaps by taking place in rural areas that in real life do have rather spotty cell coverage.
  • Character Title: Played with by all four names being used at different times for the main character.
  • Commune: The cult which Martha was part of are one, denouncing having possessions with collectively owned property and shared chores. She also lacks any normal sense of privacy about sex later, as they had orgies.
  • Cult: Martha was in one controlled by a man named Patrick who raped her along with other women ritually for "cleansing" then got them into committing crimes against outsiders.
  • Cut Phone Lines: After Martha calls the cult from Lucy's house and hangs up after a short conversation, the phone rings. Martha immediately disconnects it.
  • Dead Alternate Counterpart: In-Universe, the cultists rationalize their apparent murder of someone whose home they were invading by invoking the inversion of this trope.
  • Dinner and a Show: The scene where Ted quizzes Martha about her future plans, or rather the lack thereof, leading to his "The Reason You Suck" Speech (see below)
  • 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.
  • Double Entendre: Max's instructions to Martha on how to shoot. Lampshaded by the way she's giggling as he does.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: After another one of the cult's women kills the supposedly sick cat when Martha fails to, Max kills the other cat, only for Patrick to criticize him for doing so so needlessly as the cat he killed was not the sick one.
  • Evil Phone: The suggested reason why Martha disconnected the phone is because the call was from someone at the cult who would seek to get her back in.
  • 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). Her taking up Ted's offer to go out on the boat and learn to drive it suggests she might come on to him (nope)
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: This dynamic seems to exist between Lucy and Martha.
  • Freak Out: After believing that the bartender at Lucy and Ted's party is one of the cultists, Martha ends their conversation by calling him a liar, smashing a glass, and suddenly carrying on about how she, Lucy and Ted have to leave immediately. They respond by taking her to their bedroom, giving her some medication, and letting her sleep it off.
  • Horror Hippies: The cult is a commune-like place which (ostensibly) believes in free love and the women are shared with the megalomaniacal male cult leader who uses sex as a ritual and does...something to make sure he "only has boys."
  • House Pseudonym: Cult members must identify themselves as either "Marlene Lewis" or "Michael Lewis" when answering the phone.
  • 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.
  • In the Back: How Katie stabs the homeowner who catches Patrick, Martha and the other two cult members burglarizing his house.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: While not offensive, the title's certainly a bit of a mouthful.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Martha wanders into Lucy and Ted's room while they're having sex, casually sitting down at the end of the bed, to their outrage. She's nonplussed by their reaction, since she has lived in a cult commune so long privacy is foreign to her now.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Ted criticizes Martha constantly and has no sympathy for her plight (although Martha is hardly forthcoming about the experiences which traumatized her). However, he does have a point that Martha relies on his hospitality, eats his food, and wears Lucy's clothes while recovering from her (awful) experiences, yet feels superior enough to judge him and imply that his way of life isn't good enough.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No Ending: We don't ever find out if the cult is real, if the man following them is a cultist, if he tries to attack them, if he follows them so the cult can come after Martha later, if she ever gets over her obvious mental health issues, if she ever tells her sister what is going on, or if she ever repairs her relationship with her sister (assuming she isn't killed by the cult). If the cult is real we also don't see if they eventually get shut down over the murder, rape, and implied infanticide. If it isn't real we have one clue (a fragment of an excuse about a boyfriend) as to what might have really happened to Martha and nothing else. It would be as if Black Swan had ended twenty minutes earlier, mid-scene. Arguably, this is the overall point of the film. The true focus of the story is Martha showing, admitting and eventually seeking help for her mental problems, rather than Martha running away from the cult.
  • 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.
  • Promotion to Parent: Lucy to Martha, since it's implied both of their parents died sometime ago. Her handling of the role also seems to have been a past source of friction between them.note 
  • Psychological Thriller: The plot focuses on Martha's fractured psyche and how she got to be that way.
  • "Psycho" Strings: Slower than usual, under the opening credits.
  • 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: Martha and other female initiates to the cult are ritually raped by Patrick.
  • "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.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Teaching someone to shoot a a handgun while coming on to them physically and using suggestive terminology really isn't a very good idea. The film sort of lampshades this by having Patrick come into the scene and not only do it more conscientiously but criticize Max in the process.
  • 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.
  • Sex in a Shared Room: The cult has an extremely relaxed view of sexuality, which is heavily implied to involve a lot of this, especially considering that all the female cult members share beds. After Martha has a night terror/panic attack, she creeps into Ted and Lucy's bedroom while they're having sex. Lucy and Ted are extremely angry, but Martha just replies that "it's a big bed, and you guys were on the other side."
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Martha shows many signs of trauma due to her experiences in the cult (which included being repeatedly raped), such as hallucinatory flashbacks and paranoia (which may be partly justified).
  • Single Sex Offspring: Patrick "only has boys." Whatever happens to his daughters, we don't see it.
  • Skinny Dipping: Martha does this at one point.
    Ted: That's an interesting choice of swimwear.
  • Sleeves Are for Wimps: Patrick often wears just a tank top.
  • Slipping a Mickey: To accomplish the above, new female members are given an herbal drink that, unbeknownst to them, been spiked with sedatives.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The credits.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Although she is fully aware of the cult's abusive, murderous nature, Martha still misses them. After Ted shouts at her, she even calls them, although she comes to regret it.
  • 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: Given how much is portrayed as ambiguous regarding Martha's experiences, what she says about her past may not be wholly reliable.
  • 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).
  • Wakeup Makeup: Martha the morning after her Freak Out.
  • 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".