The cult aftermath can be a horrendous experience. Leaving a cult can be dangerous in psychological and physical ways. The person who leaves a cult can have anxiety about whether those s/he left behind are going to come after him/her. Leaving might involve the risk of injury or even death. Once free and clear, the ex-cultist faces a kind of culture shock. When s/he reenters the mainstream world, it feels like a foreign place. This is made worse by any brainwashing that the ex-cult member experienced and any emotional attachments to people left behind. At best, it’s a difficult readjustment.
All of this is a part of the “What if?” question that drives indie writer-director Sean Durkin‘s 2011 indie feature film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. At the beginning of the first act, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) makes her escape from a sociological cult of young men and women located in the Catskills. Her desperation is leavened by ambivalence as she calls Lucy (Sarah Paulson) (her sister, with whom she has been out of contact for a few years) from a diner in a small town near the cult’s farm. Lucy drives Martha to apparent safety — a rural Connecticut home that she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are renting for a few weeks’ respite from their New York City life. It’s not long before Martha’s difficulties begin. Her behavior becomes increasingly strange to Lucy and Ted, who seem equally unusual to Martha.
Martha’s behavior worsens after she starts having flashbacks about her time spent with the cult. Her flashbacks are psychological associations to her experiences at Lucy and Ted’s place. The film’s editing brilliantly weaves together her past and present — to the point that the viewer is thrown off balance. The cuts are so smoothly done that one doesn’t realize immediately when time and place have shifted. The resulting sense of ungroundedness mirrors how Martha feels inside.
Conflict between people and cultures rises until past and present eventually meet in the finale. While Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult’s leader, clearly exploits and abuses Martha (as well as the other female members), he also empowers her in certain ways that the mainstream world never did. We can see how her subordinate role in the mainstream world led her to seek liberation in an alternative community. In particular, her role as a “failure” in comparison to her materialistic older sister shows how she was exploited by her family before she left to join the cult.
Since Martha won’t tell Lucy and Ted anything about what happened to her during her years away from them, they assume she’s just crazy and try to pack her off to a mental institution. They don’t understand when she tells them she’s become “a teacher and a leader,” but the audience understands all too well what this means and what will happen as the film fades to black and the end credits roll. In the end, Martha Marcy May Marlene is as critical of the mainstream NYC “yuppie” culture and its values as it is of Patrick’s patriarchal, misogynistic cult upstate.