Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin, 2011

#10, 2011 Skandies

Early on in Martha Marcy May Marlene, the protagonist — who uses all of the names in the title at various points — calls her sister from a pay phone to ask for a ride and place to stay.  What she doesn't tell her sister is that she has just escaped from what initially appears to be a commune, which is then revealed as a cult, which is then revealed as a murderous cult modeled after the Manson Family.  Most of what we learn about the cult comes in flashbacks — which, again, initially appear to be merely cinematic, but are then revealed to be diegetic, as Martha is in the grip of some serious post-traumatic psychological disintegration and is actually reliving what we're seeing.  There is more to Martha Marcy May Marlene than just conveying Martha's fragmented moment-to-moment experience; there's also the tension that arises from the hints that, hey, it may not be the safest thing to take in someone who's just escaped from a murderous cult, especially if you don't know that's what you've done.  But for the most part this is a Pattern 37 movie.  Every scene deliberately begins in a manner that makes it ambiguous whether we're in the past or the present, which in turn kicks viewers out of a receptive/reflective "absorbing the story" mode and into an analytical "hunting for clues" one.  Some people like that.  I don't. 

And because the paragraph above would make for a pretty short article, I will now tell the story of the time I was recruited into a cult.  It's not much of a story, though.  It was my junior year of college, spring semester.  There was a cute girl in a couple of my classes.  I figured that, as with the cute girls in my previous classes, our interaction would be limited to me glancing wistfully at her once or twice a week.  To my surprise, she started talking to me.  In retrospect, knowing what she was up to, I reckon that's not too surprising; I'm sure I was radiating those "bright but troubled loner" vibes that mark people as easy cult targets.  But while picking up on interpersonal signals has never been my forte, even I quickly got the sense that something was off here:

  • she always had her brother with her, though he never said anything

  • whenever I asked her about herself or her background, she gave vague and evasive answers

  • we had exchanged maybe five minutes of chitchat total before she started in on her guru and her ashram and how I should come to a meeting, and once she had broached that topic she didn't want to talk about much else

Some of the people in my dorm had caught me walking across campus with this girl and had teased me about whether something was developing there, but by that point it was already pretty clear to me what her agenda was, so I shrugged off their suggestions that she might be interested in me.  They thought I was just being a passive loser, until the evening I got home and found a message on my answering machine, which I played aloud.  It was from the girl in question.  Her guru was making a personal appearance at the ashram that night, she announced, and she gave me the address, and with an almost desperate intensity added, "I would really, really like to see you there."  The machine went beep.  My roommate looked at me and admitted that, yeah, there was probably more to my "she's just trying to recruit me into a cult" hypothesis than just low self-esteem.  Anyway, I didn't go, and she stopped talking to me.  Sometimes I wonder whether she could have gotten me to go if she'd been better at her job.

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