Martha Marcy May Marlene explores cult life
Newcomer Elisabeth Olsen channels a cult victim’s paranoia is acclaimed thriller.
A scene from "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Director Sean Durkin did not make "Martha Marcy May Marlene" with an eye to making some kind of anti-cult polemic, but the acclaimed thriller, which debuted at Sundance and recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is happy that former cult members have come up to him to express their appreciation for the film's accurate depiction of life in and after a cult.
"It's amazing," says Durkin. "And every time it's happened it's always that they feel we've depicted it exactly right. And that to me... I never make a film trying to make a message or do anything like that, but it's just good to know because in part driving me was that I wanted to be true to that experience, to make an honest film. Not for any other purpose. But it's great to hear that when people who have been through [that] feel it's accurate, that's really rewarding."
The rather trickily titled "Martha Marcy May Marlene" casts newcomer Elisabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) as Martha, a reckless young woman who suddenly returns to her family after two years in a cult. Her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson: "The Notorious Bettie Page") welcomes her with open arms, but Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy: "Our Idiot Brother") is wary of Martha's paranoia and remains suspicious of her motives. Meanwhile, cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes: "Winter's Bone") and his followers may be coming after their wayward sister.
Martha's story catapults back and forth through time via a seamless series of flashbacks mixed in with current events. Durkin credits his editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier ("Catfish") with helping him convey Martha's perspective through canny editing.
"That structure came from, again, going back to the story and just following Martha's perspective," he says. "And one of the things along the way - I sort of settled on this; it didn't make it into the movie much but you get a hint of it - is that this cult has sort of a Buddhist-based philosophy. And in earlier drafts there was more of that, but I decided I didn't want that so much in.
"But within that process there was this idea that with also having a supposed self-sustaining farm that you focus on the moment, that there is no idea of time. That is this Buddhist idea that everything happens in the present and there is no future and no past; this thing that sort of existed in the mindset of the cult. So I felt that Martha came out of that; she would be in that situation."
Olsen is a relative newcomer to film, having come out of the theatre. I ask Durkin why he cast her as Martha.
"She's just the best person," he says simply. "I just had the feeling, and she had a great audition. She's very vibrant and strong, and I thought that if you put that inside the hard outer shell of Martha, you would get something interesting. I just got a sense that she could act very effortlessly too."
As a follow-up, I ask Olsen why she wanted the part.
"There are quite a few reasons," she says. "I just really love the way the story is told [through] this non-linear structure, this going forth, what's ambiguous, as you were talking about earlier. That excites me as an audience member so that sounded good to me. And also you don't get an opportunity like this as an actor; you don't get an opportunity to have such a range of things to go through in a character. It's almost like making two films. It's a gift to be able to do something like that."
The film's ending - which will not be revealed here - is pitch perfect but will likely frustrate a few viewers due to its ambiguity. One journalist asks Durkin about coming up with it.
"In the beginning, I decided to make a film about a cult, and I didn't really know where it was going. I started to talk to people and became really passionate about that experience of what those first few weeks are like after someone tries to leave. I spent time with someone, a lot of time, and I cared very deeply for her story. This film is not based on her story but the understanding of the tactics, the emotional fallout of the paranoia. All of those things were things that she experienced. And the fact is that you can't recover from something like this in two or three weeks, and I really wanted the film to focus on that time period.
"It takes years," he says. "Some people never recover; some people, within years. So I wanted to be true to that experience. So when the film ends I felt like it had to end there, and the questions that are being asked are hopefully the same ones that Martha's asking."