A lot of movies out there seem, upon viewing, that they’re someone's application to the filmmaking profession. So many movies are just dull and display a competent filmic structure without being interesting or insightful or meaningful in any way at all. Martha Marcy May Marlene is such a film. it's about a young woman named Martha who fled a dull and colourless hippie cult that set up its commune somewhere in America. I can only assume that the reason why such a film was produced was to serve as a stepping stone to better things in the industry for all involved with its production.
I'm not clear on how the social group Martha fled is a religious cult. There's no religious element to their beliefs and in place of spirituality they express a selection of mainstream self-help lifestyle cliches about not smoking and realizing one's potential, all emanating from a guy named Patrick who I guess, is their charismatic leader. Patrick really has no interesting ideas of his own and its difficult to understand his appeal to a group of followers. He's a grubby guitar player who evokes Charles Manson, but Manson was purported to be hypnotically charismatic to the people who followed him, and at least had an apocalyptic vision of the future with himself ensconced as its high priest. Here the Manson figure, Patrick, is just a boring man strumming away on an acoustic guitar.
The group invades homes and at one point kills a man. This is their dark side, and its watered down Manson family stuff. The Mansons invaded Bevery Hills mansions and killed as a beginning stage to bringing Manson’s psychotic vision of ‘Helter Skelter’ into reality. Patrick’s group invades homes just to goof around in them for a bit while they’re empty, and they kill a man because he wanted to call the police on the group when they invaded a home that was currently occupied. Of course, it’s not nothing to kill someone, but it’s not exactly a meaningful cult killing either - since this is a movie supposedly about the dangers of cult life, it is completely devoid of the gripping and hallucinatory depravity of the Manson murders.
Marlene flees the 'cult' and calls her sister who comes and gets her. Her sister and husband are yuppies and they don’t seem to understand eachother, a disconnect that doesn’t have to be the result of a consciousness born out of cult conditioning. Regardless, Marlene begins acting strangely around them and they get annoyed with her, mostly because Marlene won’t say anything about her experiences so they don’t know why she’s so weird.
Marlene shows signs of having experienced trauma all through the movie. She doesn't talk about it and her Sister doesn't ask what happened until the end of the movie which is really what propells things forward. The younger sibling can act weird and have outbursts and elicit only anger from her sister and husband rather than sympathy or understanding. Her sister and Marlene drove for apparently three hours to get to their home and without talking about anything.
My understanding is that people who leave cults on their own volition typically want to talk about it, because they had a realization that there's something wrong with their way of life and what to let others know what's going on to the people they've left behind, but also because they left their social situation behind and need to be consoled into believing that they made the right decision. Marlene can flee from her cult but she can't talk about it, right now I'm watching the final scene of the film and its so obvious that the car they're riding in is going to get smashed by a cult's car while they once again film Marlene's expressionless face. Expressionless faces are what tie the disparate scenes of this film together.
What’s unfortunate about this movie is that it doesn’t truly convey what’s so threatening about life within a charismatic cult where psychological and physical abuse is present. The cult members are clearly dangerous, but they aren’t really organized around a set of beliefs that drive them to cause a destructive renewal of the world, nor are they directed towards violence (against the self and others) by a fanatical devotion to their spiritual leader. Instead, they were caught committing a fairly banal (as far as crimes go) street crime, that is breaking and entering a private residence, and then kill to cover it up. The realities of the worst of the world's religious cults are immensely more bizarrely dramatic and shocking portals into the most vicious spaces of the human psyche than are Patrick and his white t-shirt dullards.