Whose Religion? Which Cult? Seeing on the Margins

Sean Durkin’s Film Martha Marcy May Marlene in Review

Jeffrey Metcalfe

In a time when the greed of liberal capitalism has brought the global economy to the knife’s edge of utter collapse, it may seem frivolous to spend time at the movies. Indeed as the Occupy protesters continue their encampments, the often-heard criticism by the elite – the infamous 1% – is the hypocrisy of the protesters own positions. Are they not organizing their traffic stoppages on their iphones while they sip Starbucks lattes? Are they not themselves the very consumers who keep the death march of infinite protest going? How then can they make a legitimate critique of a system in which they are implicated? We can imagine the critics shouting: “let the hippies leave their communes and go home, let them get jobs and stop complaining about a system that supports them.”

Rather than feeling like you are handing over 30 pieces of silver for a pass to the cinemas this weekend, as Martha Marcy May Marlene hits theaters, few critics of capitalism could do better then to put their protest signs back in their yurts for a few hours (its okay, you will want to take them up again later) and head over to their local cinemas for Sean Durkin’s new film.

Set in the mountainous Catskills region of Upstate New York, and the tranquil cottage country of Connecticut, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a woman’s frantic escape into one cult, and subtle initiation into another. As the film begins we watch as the heroin and wounded drifter Martha Marlene (played in a stunning performance by Elizabeth Olsen), is gently lured into what appears to be a throwback to the hippy agrarian commune, or intentional community.

At first, it seems almost Benedictine in structure, as we walk with her through the routine that holds the community together including meals taken in silence, separation of genders, communal farm chores, and daily worship in the guise of secular singsongs.[1] The community even has an abbot figure in its wiry leader Patrick (played by a disheveled John Hawkes) and holds its possessions in common. The lure of simplicity and the romanticism of living a life in communion with the land and others is palpably felt.

Yet not all is as it should be. The dissonance begins when Patrick, as if in the tradition of the monastic profession of the solemn vow, renames Martha, Marcy May. In a fitting and reoccurring trope, we then see the newly minted Marcy May plunge naked into a river with her communistic comrades, a scene vaguely reminiscent of baptism in the early church. Her full immersion into a religious community has begun.

As the details of the commune’s routine are filled in, inequalities increasingly emerge. The men eat before the women, better than the women, and the women are left with the dishes. As the camera pans across their subsistence garden, the women can be seen hard at work, while the men seem to be idly watching. Moreover, for anyone familiar with agriculture, the signs of real food production are absent. The garden in which the women dig is far too small to support a fraction of the community, its sloppy and barrenness a sign of the empty promises of the commune.

Finally, the ominousness comes to a head when Patrick demands Marcy May stop being selfish and give herself fully to the community. In a disturbing series of events we see Marcy May clothed in a white – almost baptismal – robe being drugged and raped by Patrick. The truth of the community is laid bare in religious violence as the already initiated women congratulate her for completing her detoxification rite. The next day, during the community singsong time, Patrick plays a song he wrote for Marcy May, the chorus of which consists of “she is nothing but a picture on my wall.” The song enchants her, making her as empty as the content of its lyrics, showing the way in which the secular liturgy functions as a mechanism of control, one horrifying in its proximity to rape.

We cheer for Marcy May when, for reasons the film later makes clear, she snaps out of it and escapes, calling her sister in Connecticut to pick her up. At this point, in a film about a cult, we might expect a rehabilitation narrative to occur in which Marcy May comes to be nurtured back into Martha, only to be threatened again by the return of the cult. While this remains a latent possibility throughout the film, the cleverness of Durkin is the way in which he juxtaposes the attempt to rehabilitate Marcy May back into Martha, with the flashback memories of her initiation and life in the Catskills cult. This draws into question the supposed objective, non-religious space of the “real world,” revealing its own disavowed cultic practices.

Entering her sister and brother-in-law’s upper-class lifestyle, right away we sense the strange mix of continuity and discontinuity with Marcy May’s (who has now been returned to her given name Martha) previous cultic experience. Where her sister and brother-in-law live in a giant ritzy country house just on weekends (they quickly let slip they actually live in a New York City high-rise, where the brother-in-law works as a real-estate property manager/architect), the entire Catskills cult lived in a house smaller and less grandiose. Martha often makes note of this overabundance of wealth, calling into question the way her sister and brother-in-law take their values as natural. In part, this critique seems to lay in the formulaic critiques of the outside world that the Catskills cult imbued her with. Indeed, the emptiness of her sister’s lifestyle is clearly the raison d’être of the previous cult. Nevertheless, we also have the sense in which Martha’s resistance to that lifestyle also arises from her unwillingness to fall into cultic logic once again. Having been deceived by the empty promises of the commune’s religious practices, she will not easily submit to another illusory way of life.

This comes to enrage her sister and brother-in-law, who call out her hypocrisy for eating their food and using their resources while rejecting the greed and materialistic values that gave rise to them (sound familiar 1%?). An eerie repetition of practices seen in the Catskills cult ensues, including offering Martha an herbal drink for detoxification, dressing her up in a white gown to present her to their bourgeois community at a cocktail party, and drugging her when their attempt to initiate her into this new life causes a panic attack. We are even led to believe they continue with their party. Of course, this calls the benevolence of their attempt to rehabilitate Martha into question, as Martha’s violation of their social norms begins to erode their compassion for a fragile, struggling, but not uncritical wounded woman.

Even at the end, the tense mood of the film never lets up, for whether real or imagined, we are never sure if the Catskills cult is really out of the picture. The brilliance of Martha Marcy May Marlene is in its suggestion that this may be because the empty religion of the Catskills cult and the violence that maintains it, is produced by, and reflective of, a more subtle type of violence from a religion that is equally empty. The message protestors should take back to their yurts: sometimes it takes people who are living in the gaps and on the margins to see it.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.


[1] Following James Smith, I would suggest that these sorts of liturgical practices, whether secular or theistic, are constitutive of religion. Religion should not be defined substantively, but functionally, making the Catskills cult a distorted version of a Benedictine community. Cf. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 27.

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