Leaving Cults and Lingering Trauma

I’ve found some unintentional yet common threads through some of my filmwatching over the past year, especially in light of having read Serene Jones’ phenomenal book, Trauma and Grace. I’ve watched numerous films that manage to get at the long-term, invasive effects of traumatic experiences. Through sophisticated editing and brilliant acting, these films portray the brokenness of post-trauma life and the (in)ability of victims to live well-adjusted lives. One such film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, also points at the role of religion and/or cults in inducing some traumatic experiences.


Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Elizabeth Olsen as the titular character, a young woman who joins and ultimately flees a cult in rural Connecticut. The cult is lead by Patrick (John Hawkes in his most unsettling, evil performance yet) and is composed, largely, of women and a few men. Work is divided equally, as are possessions. While men and women eat separately, they observe no such discretion in matters of sex…orgies seem to be an occasional occurrence. Sex is also used as an initiation rite into the community as new female inductees are drugged and raped. They are subsequently encouraged to see this as an ultimate break from their old life and an entry into their new one. The group occasionally goes on some breaking and entering outings to nearby homes. When one of these trips unexpectedly turns violent, Martha flees to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are an upper middle class, well-to-do couple with a lake house that they frequent. Martha, disillusioned as she is with her own cult experiences, is also critical of her sister’s way of life, which she views as highly consumerist and wasteful. The film cuts back and forth between her rescue and memories of the cult, often triggered by harmless events at her sister’s lake house.

Patrick (John Hawkes) manipulates Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) into accepting their way of life.

The strength of Martha Marcy May Marlene is this editing. Seemingly out of the blue, memories of her life in the cult invade Martha’s daily life and disrupt any attempts to fully or better connect with Lucy and Ted. While her communal way of life has made her highly critical of the individualistic ways in which her family lives, she has not developed the emotional or mental maturity to constructively express these disagreements. She often lashes out, verbally and physically, against Lucy and Ted and cannot understand why they are offended by her behavior and comments.

At the same time, many of her memories are painful, specifically those of her own rape and of facilitating the rape of others. These cause her to physically panic even when in a seemingly safe place and to lash out at those who only want to help her. As the leader of the cult, Patrick occupies a particularly powerful place in her memories. Oftentimes, writer/director Sean Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier momentarily lay Patrick’s voice over a scene at the lake house before cutting back to a scene of him on the farm. This lends an eeriness to these mental invasions that simultaneously helps define her experiences on the farm.

It's not clear what Patrick is preparing his "followers" for, but it is frightening.

A slight drawback to Martha Marcy May Marlene is that Martha’s experiences on the farm have no clear motivating factor. That is, we never get a sense of why she has joined the cult or why it has emerged in the first place. There’s a clear interest in communal living, shared possessions and responsibilities, but there doesn’t seem to be a unifying philosophical or religious underpinning. Patrick seems to dabble in philosophy, but so much of what he spouts off just seems to be the necessary b.s. to justify his sexual exploits. As I have mentioned, Durkin does use Martha’s time on the farm to lend a critical glance at Lucy and Ted’s upper middle class lifestyle. Martha questions their need for such a big lake house that only the two of them use.

In the end, neither worldview seems to be adequate. Patrick’s vision of a communal utopia is an impossible ideal that also hides repeated sexual crimes. Lucy and Ted’s costly isolation also cuts them off from those who need them most. Yet Durkin is not necessarily concerned with proposing an alternate vision or via media. He is far more interested in the long term effects of cult involvement, and, to that end, the film is a disturbing success.

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (102 mins.) is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity, and language and is available on DVD.