Family Ties

'Martha Marcy' a grim look at cult's damaging effect


The ominous Martha Marcy May Marlene has a tongue-twister title, but it’s a title worth learning. Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen twins, plays a girl unstuck in time, completely hollowed out by a cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes).

After she escapes from the compound in upstate New York, Martha is traumatized by memories of what was done to her, and what she did to others. Martha’s estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) puts the penniless girl up in her lakeside vacation house. The vacation turns dismal: severely traumatized and yet unable to put her ordeal in words, Martha thwarts her sister’s attempts to connect.

What happened to Martha is cloudy and half-remembered, though not all Gothic; much of it she spent as an underfed female drone subject to murderous threats.

And probably not coincidentally, director Sean Durkin gives the cult leader a Manson air. Patrick looks startlingly like Charlie as the older jailbird, and he considers himself a folk musician, too, just as Manson did. Durkin seems to understand that what makes this character interesting isn’t his followers’ crimes, but the hold the leader has over his followers. The film’s turning point has Patrick making his family listen to a song he’s written about Martha, whom he’s renamed Marcy May. “You’re just a picture on the wall,” he sings.

In one of the year’s key performances, Olsen gives us a memorable portrait of a girl split in pieces. What I liked best here was the note of arrogance that comes in cult living: who else can experience love and life as well as those within the width of the circle? The film shows us where the attraction lies: the cracks in normal society, the fissures large enough for a spider to crawl in . . .

‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ opens Friday, Nov. 4, at Summerfield Cinemas. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa.