I’m the kind of man susceptible to the charm of charismatic leader. Deep down I consider myself a vulnerable soul searching for some place to belong. In the past I’ve contemplated signing up to an Alpha Course and even going along to take a Personality Test in a Scientology Centre. I just want to feel part of something. Practically speaking I would be living rent free. There would be freshly grown food and kool aid.
The idea of a commune has also always appealed to me. Joining a ‘family’ that lives together outside society’s boring boundaries seems appealing. Trouble is human nature dictates that there would be a hierarchy, someone would assume a leadership role, would dominate and ultimately destroy any possibility of collective harmony.
We’ve seen David Koresh and Charles Manson seductively lure a bunch of vulnerable people to worship them as living God’s. I was always drawn more to the Manson Family, given that their place in the dark side of popular culture coincides with my favourite period of modern history, the decaying counter-cultural movement of the late sixties. Charles Manson was an unlikely charismatic figure, a psychopath who somehow managed to get a bunch of women to fall for him as he played the role of spiritual guru and struggling musician. Things went predictably awry in ’69 as Charlie wanted to start a race war, and descended into madness, getting his devilish followers to make a few murderous statements.
Would a Manson figure thrive today? Possibly not, we’re too drawn to the cult of celebrity. Our God’s can be followed on Twitter. But imagine uf a celebrity inviting their followers to literally follow them. Say for example the Australian actor Alan Fletcher purchased a plot of land, set up camp, and invited the weak-minded and emotionally needy to join him. He begins by serenading his followers with covers of Britpop classics on a battered acoustic guitar, then things get darker as night falls and he pulls out a velvet bag full of penile toys.
‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ is a film about what might happen today if someone left the modern equivalent to Manson’s family and tried to adjust from cult member to fully functioning member of normal society. Understandably such a person would be fucked up. They’d have no concept of time, no idea about social conventions. They would be confused and bemused, and scared about what the future might hold for them.
Elizabeth Olsen is Martha, who was once known as Marcy May. Marlene is the name she used to use when answering the cult’s phone. The film follows Martha after she escapes from the cult and shelters with her sister, and her sister’s wealthy English husband in a lake side home. Throughout the film we flashback to Martha’s time in the cult, and discover the reasons why she chose to leave.
The clever aspect of the film is that we assume after early flashbacks that the reasons for Martha’s departure were chiefly because of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Patrick (the film’s Charles Manson figure), yet quickly Martha becomes implicated into the cult herself as she willingly shacked up with Patrick again, grooms other young women for Patrick’s bidding, and begins breaking into people’s home to forage. Such foraging inevitably ends in tragedy.
Martha is vulnerable; a wet leaf of a woman, and throughout the film appears completely lost. She has no real identity other then the one Patrick bestowed upon her. She constantly seeks love, care and support, yet is unable to process and receive genuine affection. Martha is unable to let anyone in, to bring her guard down. This is noted both by Patrick in Martha’s early days in the cult, and by her sister, who is worried about Martha’s state of mind.
Olsen, in this, her breakthrough role, plays it perfectly, she frowns, cowers and cries, she erupts in frustration, wets herself and freaks out. Her complicated character – a woman who we the viewers never really gets to know, towards the end of the film struggles with reality. We’re not sure if she is having a post-traumatic breakdown, or is seeing very real and possibly sinister things. As the temporary sanctity of her sister’s lakeside accommodation is taken away, everything she has run away from begins to catch up with her.
I don’t think we see enough of Patrick, played sinisterly by John Hawkes, and it is therefore tricky to know what drew people to live in the commune and follow his lead. How did Martha end up there? Why does she stay after being raped? Did she get brainwashed, did she genuinely feel that she had nowhere else to go?
Martha is an unreliable witness throughout the film, we see things through her perspective, however her viewpoint is skewed and confused. She has endured trauma, and is maladjusted. Even when she witnesses something horrific, she appears on the periphery, not quite there, not able to comprehend what has happened. Therefore the ending, left open to our interpretation, is perfectly apt.