Wayward souls are often the prey of sociopaths. They either turn into victims or accomplices or something in the middle. Cult leaders from Charles Manson to Jim Jones have used the veneer of family and community to twist people's minds into believing terrible things. They make it too scary to leave. The outside world becomes foreign. So how can one cope if they do get away?
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, PEACE, LOVE, & MISUNDERSTANDING) is such a young woman. She flees from Patrick (John Hawkes, WINTER'S BONE) a much older man who leads a family of young men and women on a rural farm. She doesn't really know where she is. The other members follow her. Watts (Brady Corbet, 2007's FUNNY GAMES), one of the members, finds her at a diner and tells her to come home. He doesn't force her, but the impression that if she doesn't something bad will happen to her is strongly implied.
Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, SERENITY) who she hasn't talked to in two years. Lucy hears the fear in her voice and drives three hours to pick her up and take her back to her vacation home in Connecticut. Martha doesn't want to talk about her ordeal; she just wants to sleep. The lasting effects of the mind games Martha has endured come out in little inappropriate gestures. The severity increases over time, which puts a strain on the relationship between Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, TV's THE BIG C), an up and coming architect.
Writer/director Sean Durkin creates an interesting dichotomy between the communal life Martha lived in on the farm and the upscale posh of her sister and brother-in-law. Just because Martha has left the cult doesn't mean she has left all the ideas behind. Patrick's philosophy has the members taking care of each other and sharing openly. It's powerful to Martha, a woman who lost her parents at a young age. The "normal" world makes her feel uneasy and confined. Durkin creates a real fear that Martha may choose to go back, because the real world no long gets her.
Patrick is a patient and devious man, who certainly uses HELTER SKELTER as a manual for running his commune. When Martha first comes to live there, he gives her a new name, Marcy May, which just reinforces the rejection of Martha's former self. For the first time, she feels completely accepted and un-judged. When things start to get strange, the other women, such as the mama bear Katie (Maria Dizzia, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED), help shepherd the new recruit through the experience much like a "big" helps a pledge through an initiation into a sorority. Only sorority rituals don't always involve drugs and orgies.
Olsen, who yes is the little sister of the Olsen Twins, gives an Oscar worthy performance filled with subtle paranoia. Every so often she lets down her hardened guard and sunny innocence peeks through. Olsen makes us feel all that she has lost in these simple moments. As she tries, often unsuccessfully, to assimilate back into the real world, she flashes back to her time in the cult. Memories start to meld with dreams and her sanity is pushed to the edge. We are gripped with what could have been the breaking point that pushed her to leave. As time goes on, Durkin makes the transitions between the vacation home and flashbacks to the farm more fluid, blurring the line between the two. Often we have transitioned long before we know it and it startles us when we catch up. It's great direction that puts us into the emotions of Martha.
The name Marlene is another name Martha goes by that is revealed toward the end and highlights the chilling nature of Patrick's pathology. Those well versed in the Manson family will see many parallels, which for me became too obvious and pulled me out of this fictional story at times. Nonetheless, this is still the best film I've seen on cults and the mind games they play on their victims. The most interesting part is the after effects. While well meaning, Lucy is ill equipped to de-program her little sister. Bourgeois morality and a Xanax aren't going to make Martha stop looking over her shoulder and open up. At one point a frustrated Lucy asks her sister what happened to her and she replies I don't know. The question Martha is really answering is how did this happen to me?