Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is profoundly disoriented. In fact, you might say that she is no longer Martha. Her psyche is fractured because the foundations which have constituted her identity have been shaken. Martha is struggling to come to grips with herself, with modern bourgeois society, and with all that she endured after escaping a cult. Her disorientation stems from being enticed and then manipulated for nearly two years. And this is the nature of evil which is embodied by Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult’s deceptive leader, the seduction of others into objects for the purpose of selfish manipulation. We catch haunting glimpses into the nature of cults through Martha’s fragmented memories.
Patrick’s god-like seduction of Martha begins when he suggests that she “looks like a Marcy May.” From then on, Martha is Marcy — and Marcy is effectively Patrick’s. At first glance, the cult seems attractive to Martha in its resistance of the consumerist excesses that capitalism can encourage. Rather than celebrate the self-reliance in modern society, Patrick’s cult emphasizes trust, interdependence, giving of one’s self, sharing, and resisting self-indulgence. But while these appear as attractive virtues on the surface, they are not true all the way down for Patrick’s underlying motivations are sinister. An initial rape Martha suffers from Patrick is termed a “cleansing”; sexual abuse is cast as the women being willing to “share themselves” openly; “respect” means the women waiting for the men to finish eating before they can eat; and “trust” is considered obeying Patrick unquestioningly.
As she struggles to reorient herself to social norms and freedom while living with her sister and brother-in-law, Martha is beset with paranoia. Her sense of self is dramatically wounded, and the stress induced by this wound is pressing. It’s as if she is still under Patrick’s control. Subjecting herself to an aspiring god like Patrick has not offered Martha direction, fulfillment, or flourishing. Rather, it has rendered Martha lost to herself and others, empty, and dilapidated. Sean Durkin offers nuance in his film by suggesting that the content of modern society’s “freeing” conditions can be just as manipulative or cult-like, but he also avoids any temptation to equate the problems between life within Patrick’s cult and life outside it. Martha’s sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy), genuinely want to help Martha retrieve herself whereas Patrick genuinely wants to distort Martha and have his way with her.
Patrick’s gentle offerings and false sense of providence seem like a fountain of life to the vulnerable, even as his ways are evidently deadly to the onlooking outsider. This is the nature of cults — a concentrated form of deception that says one can find freedom in its controls. But rather than offering boundaries that create flourishing, cults demand boundaries that entangle. The twisted nature of Patrick’s musings are perhaps nowhere more self-evident than when he tells Marcy May that death is the most beautiful part of life. It creates a fear — a fully-present awareness that is the source of pure love. “Death is pure love,” he casually concludes. Having submitted herself to “fearing” Patrick, Martha is anything but fully aware. Instead, she is lost under his control even after her escape — to the point of delusion.
The resulting chasm between Martha and Marcy May — between who she was created to be and who Patrick has fashioned her to be — is caused by the seductive intentions of Mr. Death (to borrow an Updikean nickname). And only an authority which is the Source of Life can restore Martha. Only by finding herself in this Source can she be someone other than “Marlene” to the outside world, find her bearings, and be Martha again.