Friday 25 January 2019

Cult Cinema #14: Exiles, part 2

(Another revisitation, this time of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Spoilers as ever, discussion of rape, gaslighting, relationship abuse.)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

It's hard to explain how, when you've escaped a traumatic relationship, whether with a person or an institution, you sometimes get the feeling of being stalked, the fear that you will be found. You can be walking down the street and a sick feeling takes you, a lurch, at the thought of who might be walking the other way, that someone with an urge to revenge would just be there, present. They wouldn't even have to do anything; they'd just have to be there. In fact, you are being stalked: but it is the fear that is stalking you. It is the grief.

I think Sean Durkin's film Martha Marcy May Marlene comes closer to communicating that feeling than any other film I've seen. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is scared of the cult she's left hundreds of miles behind her, enough that an indistinct figure in a white T shirt, glimpsed from a few hundred yards away, might inspire a desperate fight or flight reaction, that a man who looks a little bit like someone she left behind might make her publicly lose her shit to an extent that she risks her only apparent shot at stability and safety.

And this is pretty accurate. And the beauty of Martha Marcy May Marlene as a narrative is that it works as a credible attempt at a simulation not only of the abuse victim's experience, but of how outsiders understand that. Superficially, it’s a lot like The Passion of Darkly Noon, in that you have a traumatised young person, having lived in an isolated cult compound, failing to survive in an outside world represented by what is also an isolated place, but there the resemblance ends, since Durkin’s film at least manages to get across why someone might be in the cult, what the cult does to a person, and how hard it is to leave behind the complex trauma of having been brainwashed.
The thing about complex trauma is that it's really very difficult to explain to someone who hasn't been through anything comparable the composite awfulness of a lengthy series of experiences that lead to you becoming traumatised enough that it counts as a debilitating psychological injury. And I use the word injury quite deliberately here; while something like schizophrenia is absolutely a chronic illness, complex trauma works as a psychological equivalent of those cases where the boxer gets whacked enough in the face that it eventually causes permanent brain damage – it's only the rare punch that is enough on its own to cause damage, but it's the cumulative effect of all those bruising impacts that one day builds up to the point where impairment is permanent and incurable. When you have a history of this, you can say “they did this” or “they said this” or “they made me feel like this” and the response might reasonably be “well, so what? We've all been through that, and it's bad, but I don't get flashbacks when someone talks about it.” And that's because it's not even about the event, even the occasional event that's worth an atrocity story, although many of us who deal with this can tell you about the one event that finally snapped us, no, it's about the successive, cumulative emotional beatings we get that, even if they're individually mild, over a span of perhaps years eventually ruin us.

Now here's the thing. Faith is trauma.

When you're in a religious or quasi-religious group, especially the sort that exists to present an alternative way of living, which has beliefs that you could describe as counter-cultural, and you've joined it as an adult, you have to psychologically come round to the place where you can adopt ideologies that are out of step with what you've hitherto lived with. And that's often a combination of pivotal events, epiphanies, combined with the complex and sustained influence of a faith community. And this is not always bad, because frankly if there's anything our culture desperately needs it's countering, but in its most toxic manifestations you get a welter of social control, gaslighting and shocks, and these are, as we've already seen, the techniques that amount to what people tend to call brainwashing.

Brainwashing is a particularly odd process because aside from dear old Reverend Moon, who at the very least completely owned what he was doing, most of the people participating in the brainwashing (and it needs participants – it only really works in a social setting) rarely even know it’s what they’re doing, and the victims probably never get more than 50% towards being aware that it’s happening to them, and then most often in hindsight.
This is why cults are so frightening, and why they're so often the stuff of horror cinema, or thrillers, and why the word “cult” itself has since the second half of the 20th century become a pejorative to the extent that we have to call them New Religious Movements now if we want any chance of a measured assessment. We like to think that they won't get us, but the fact is that the average person in the 70s, having spent a week stuck in a camp with the Moonies, and subjected to chants, friendly harassment, peer pressure and sleep deprivation, would have a brain that was Persil white at the end of it. And although we kid ourselves otherwise, we are, the vast majority of us, average people. They could get us. The frightening thing, the most frightening thing in fact, is that we're all a bit brainwashed already. And whether it’s New Atheists, evangelical Christians, and communists, pick your conversion, the difference in how we get there is often only a matter of detail.

In the film, Martha's been gone for two years. And it has utterly broken her. So when she reconnects with her sister Lucy (the wonderful Sarah Paulson), who lives in a huge bespoke house in the country designed by Lucy’s brittle architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), she can neither adequately communicate what happened, nor behave in any way that works alongside the boundaries of her middle-class hosts. Her inhibitions haven’t been removed as such; they’re different, so while she can’t quite get past the barrier of explaining what has happened to her, she doesn’t see any problem with, for example, slipping into Lucy and Ted’s bed to lie beside them while they’re having sex. Lucy’s attempts to connect are confused and halting, and when Lucy’s patience breaks, all Martha can do is parrot that she’s “a teacher and a leader,” an empty statement used by the cult. It's another means of control, in fact, a demonstration of how with the right combination of building up and tearing down you can inhabit the mind of anyone.
It was Patrick who told her that.

Patrick (the always excellent John Hawkes) is the master of the cult, and in a series of flashbacks, we see how Martha joins – she’s rootless, and she winds up at the group’s farm, and it all seems fine, everyone is friendly, everyone is welcoming and warm.

There is something sort of wrong with the cult right from the beginning – at the start of the film, you see the men and women eat separately, and you see the way Martha sneaks out and makes a run for it, and the way that when she’s found in a diner by a fellow cult member, Max (Brady Corbet), she’s terrified, and he’s entirely made of that particular kind of nonchalant threat that young straight men are so proficient at projecting. But even so, for a while the wrongnesses are small, cumulative things. You can go, “OK, that’s weird,” and “That’s creepy and wrong” but it's all deniable, just as it is in a real cult. And so the wrongness mounts up, it gathers. It grows.

There’s the way that when Patrick appears, everyone says, “Hey, Patrick”, but they all tighten up a little, they all hide a little. He can crush a person with a word, can be utterly brutal, doesn’t hesitate to humiliate or shame a person if he wants to. And he decides what his cult members’ names are. So Martha becomes Marcy May. There’s a meeting, and Patrick pulls out a guitar, and sings about Marcy May, and he sings “She, she’s just a picture, just a picture on my wall.” She’s an ornament, an object. And the look on Martha’s face as she loses herself and becomes Marcy May right there and then is affecting, and a little terrifying. As she becomes part of Patrick’s collection, she loses her identity. And most terrifying of all, she wants this. She wants to.
He rapes her, of course. One of the other women drugs her drink – right in front of her, tells her more or less what she’s doing – and she wakes up to find him in the middle of the act. And then in the morning, the other women gaslight her, tell her it was Important and Special and Beautiful. And later on, she is tasked with grooming another recruit for the same experience, and with lying to her about what it means in the morning. Martha was a young woman looking for somewhere to call a home. Marcy May is part of a structure of control, both controlled and controlling. When she answers the phone, she says she is Marlene. All the women are Marlene when they answer the phone. They are faceless, their voices blend into one. Martha, the free woman, becomes Marcy May, the cult member, becomes Marlene, the empty receptacle who serves as the face for strangers. The title of the film reflects the trajectory of Martha’s identity loss. Martha, Marcy May and Marlene are the same person, an imposed identity and a non-identity serving as an existential threat to Martha.

They practice with handguns in the woods, which I guess isn't as much of an alarm bell in the rural USA as it is here but still, you sort of wonder why they need to. At one of these practices there is a tense conversation about loyalty, and whether you'd kill for the group, and Patrick tears down one of the men who's there with Marcy May, right in front of her, and it's capricious, and needless, and ruthless. And then Patrick takes Marcy May along on a trip to invade and rob a house, and the occupant is there, and so they murder the man.

And I think in the end it's because of that that Marcy May gives in to Martha’s moral centre, because she was really Martha all along. Sanctions are imposed, and Patrick resorts to violence and gaslighting, and this is where she breaks. Because we each of us have a moral centre, a place we won’t go to. And this is not always where we think it is. Some of us will go a lot further that we might expect ourselves to, especially when murderous behaviour is normalised by our community or ordered by people who we have been conditioned to want to please. Which happens more than you might wish. No one told Marcy May that they’d murder someone on this trip, and while she can not only put up with the abuses visited on her but become complicit in them, when she sees her group harming other people, she’s done. And that makes sense, because it's the big gap that groups like this often have with control. You let them do this stuff to you, because the group has convinced you it's what you need, or you deserve it. They've done their number on you already, and you take it because you have convinced yourself that the group is good. But then the group visits its abuses on people who aren't you. People who don't deserve it. And you're done.

I mean obviously it doesn't work that way with everyone, because groups do this stuff and people stay, but if you have a working moral compass, and, crucially, you're exactly the sort of person who naturally subsumes your self in the favour of others, or, to put it another way, the sort of person cults want as members the most, the sort who responds positively to their manipulation of your basic goodness, then you're the most likely to be repelled when your group reveals that its benevolent intentions towards the outside world are lies.
So Martha runs. But her trauma is so profound, her brainwashing so tenacious, that she cannot function, and that terror takes her, the terror of seeing a face she recognises, so much so that a car that looks like Patrick's sends her into a frenzy and she vandalises it, that she throws a screaming fit at a man who looks a bit like one of Patrick's cult, and so much so that a blurry figure in the distance sends her into a fugue of panic. And the film ends with her being driven to her new place to stay by her sister and brother-in-law, only they are being harassed by a car, driving strangely. It stops. Someone in a white T-shirt gets out. The film ends.

And the film is deliberately set up so that we're not a hundred per cent sure if she's being pursued, or if it's paranoia caused by her trauma. While it's quite possible that the film ends seconds before a bloody and lethal act of violence, that's not the point, because it's not about a woman escaping from a cult that comes and finds her. It's about what it's like for someone escaping from a cult, and what it's like to survive sustained complex trauma. It's about why you can't just come back into the world at large, and why you will find yourself sometimes lost and wondering if the next person you see on the street is someone you're afraid of, and the crippling terror you experience that is all the worse because you cannot be sure it will ever happen.

Everything about Martha Marcy May Marlene – the performances, pacing, writing, the structural tricks it plays – works together to make the film one of the most accurate (and as a result chilling) onscreen portrayals of the process of brainwashing and its aftereffects I think has ever been made. This is what it's like.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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