At first it looks idyllic. Scenes of people on a farmstead, building a shed together, preparing food together. Talking and laughing and doing life together. It seems like a peaceful and caring community. But not all is as it seems.

When we pay closer attention, we realize all the women sit and wait for the men to eat a hearty dinner, then descend upon the dining room for a much more simple and sparse meal. After dinner, they all fall onto a smattering of mattresses strewn on the floor of a couple bedrooms in the rambling farmhouse.

And after dark, we watch one of the young women, with frantic eyes and deft movements, slip out the front door and run off into the nearby woods. We sense that she, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), has escaped from something dark and sinister.

Martha eventually lands with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy's new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their summer lake house in Connecticut. Lucy hasn't heard from Martha in two years. All that Martha is willing, or perhaps able, to say of her whereabouts is that she was upstate with a boyfriend she has now left.

Elizabeth Olsen as the title character

Elizabeth Olsen as the title character

Over the following weeks, yuppie Lucy grows increasingly frustrated with the odd words and actions of her younger sister, while Martha has chilling flashbacks of her time with the cult, where she was known as Marcy May—memories that start to blur with reality and feed a growing paranoia that she might still be in danger.

There's an economy of dialogue, back story, and explanation in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and this lack of information sometimes adds to the unsettling nature of the film. As Martha remembers more and more of her time with the cult, not that it's ever called that in the film, we start to see the descent—the friendly community that welcomes her warmly then starts to prey on her insecurities and distort her perceptions—and we grow fearful of how bad and ugly this journey is going to get.

Sarah Paulson (right) as Lucy, trying to help her sister

Sarah Paulson (right) as Lucy, trying to help her sister

The person at the center of this farm community is Patrick (John Hawkes), a gaunt 50-ish man who wields a quiet manipulation over the gathering of young people. He makes Martha, and the others, feel special while simultaneously pushing her down. And the way he initiates Martha is pretty horrifying, as is the way it's passed off by the others as beautiful. Hawkes is powerful and creepy as this cult leader, and Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen twins) is riveting as Martha, one of his many victims.

The cult isn't religious in nature, and feels more like a commune with a quietly manipulative leader who, in the name of community and unity, strips his followers of their individual possessions and identity, and then uses that vulnerability to his twisted advantage. It's a chilling study in the abuse of power. Christians will recognize some familiar actions—Patrick gives his followers new names and calls them to give of themselves to each other—but with much less loving motivation and to much less life-giving ends than God and Jesus ever did. As a Christian, I became all the more grateful for the unconditionally loving servant leader I follow after watching this movie.

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John Hawkes as Patrick, the cult leader

John Hawkes as Patrick, the cult leader

There's a palpable tension throughout the film. We grow frustrated at Lucy for not understanding her sister's crazy actions, and at Martha for not telling her what she's been through. And as Martha's flashbacks and paranoia increase, we're with her in not knowing what's real and what's dream. The haunting stringed instruments playing over several scenes only add to the sense of unease.

It's intriguing and impressive how director and screenwriter Sean Durkin simultaneously shares how Martha got into and out of the cult. This intertwined storytelling seems to underscore the complicated nature of both journeys, and also plays up the blurring of past and present, dream and reality. We also get the sense that Martha can only truly understand the twisted experience she's just been through now that it's over and she can see it from a bit of distance.

Patrick shows Martha how to use a gun

Patrick shows Martha how to use a gun

There are several interesting issues in Martha Marcy May Marlene: the way past pain can make us vulnerable, the devastating nature of psychological manipulation, the ability of one person to control and define others, the paralyzing power of fear. Honestly, this movie haunted me for days, and the friend I saw it with said the same. It felt like it left an icky residue on my mind and my soul. So, while I found the film well done and intriguing, I can't really say I enjoyed it. Those who enjoyed being creeped out by movies will likely disagree with me on this point.

Though the story unfolds slowly and gains tension and speed as it goes, it ends—or rather stops—quite abruptly. Is Martha really crazy and imagining the final scenes? Are we to gather that the journey with a cult never truly ends? You'll have to see it and draw your own conclusions.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why do you think Martha is drawn to the cult? What does it and what does Patrick offer?
  2. Why does Patrick change Martha's name? List the various ways he controls and/or manipulates her and the others.
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  1. Why doesn't Martha tell her sister Lucy where she's really been?
  2. Despite her ignorance of the whole situation, what does Lucy do right and not so right with her sister? How does she also try to control and/or define Martha?
  3. How can we as Christians recognize whether a group is a cult or not?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Martha Marcy May Marlene is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity, and language. Take all of these warnings seriously. Even though the main character is a young woman (and younger sister of the Olsen twins), this is not a film for young audiences. Spoiler alert: Martha gets drugged, and as she comes to she is being raped by Patrick. This is how all the women are initiated. Many of the cult members have sex in the same room while Patrick watches. The inner group of people who have been in the cult for some time break into homes and steal things. When one of the homeowners catches them in the act, they stab him to death. Martha skinny dips in one scene, and in another hangs out the bedroom where her sister and brother-in-law are having sex.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language)
Directed By
Sean Durkin
Run Time
1 hour 42 minutes
Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Theatre Release
December 21, 2011 by Fox Searchlight
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