Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene and A Brief History of the American Sex Cult

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) takes place in a small picturesque town in Connecticut where a troubled teen named Martha escapes to after fleeing an abusive sex cult in the catskills of upstate New York. The protagonist is played vividly by Elizabeth Olson, the cult leader, by could-not-look-like-a-maniacle-sex-cult-leader-if-he-tried, John Hawkes. Both brilliant performances and worthy of Oscar gold if the Academy weren't such snobs. Our in into the workings of the cult is very limited but we do get a cohesive idea as to what is going on and why it would motivate Martha to escape. 
Hawkes plays Patrick, an enigmatic and extremely strange figure head of a small hippie-like commune where the women (or should I say girls) outnumber the men about 10 to 1 and are forced to have sex with them (primarily Patrick) as a way of paying homage to...something. 
It's the classic scenario that entails the brainwashing of young impressionable girls and the subsequent forced sexual interaction that is inflicted on them usually when they are underage. Why do I refer to it as a classic scenario? Because we've seen this dynamic dominate our headlines time and time again beginning  as early as the 50's, and perhaps earlier. 
The most infamous example of a sex cult in our history is of course the Manson family in Spahn Ranch, just outside of the Santa Susana Mountains in Southern California. A wannabe musician, ex-con, and psychotic named Charles Manson drove up and down the 101 Interstate searching for teenage girls who had been abandoned by their family and community who were just searching for answers, pumped them full of LSD, and told them that no one understood or loved them like he did. On the ranch, they engaged in group sex, bizarre pseudo-religious rituals, general hippie-inspired hedonistic behavior until one night Manson convinced them to go on a drive down the scenic hilly scape of Cielo Dr. in LA and we all know what happened next.
Another significant example of this modern day phenomenon would be the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX. I lived in Texas (unfortunately) for about 9 years, and the televised 50 day siege was like our moon landing. For those of you not in the know, there was this nut job awkward pseudo-nerd named Vernon who later changed his name to David Koresh who took over leadership of the Branch Davidians, a bizarre religious cult in Waco, Texas. Most of his recruits were women and a lot of them were underage, just like in the film, and just like in the film he called them his wives and had sex with all of them on a regular basis, leading to a little less than 80 children, some of whom were mercifully allowed to escape before the siege violently and tragically ended when the FBI set fire to their compound killing roughly 100 or so cult members.
David Koresh
Koresh used psychological games to twist the minds of the young women he recruited by telling them that he was the only one who cared and loved them, and eventually convinced them that he was the messiah. He obliterated their sense of self and severed their ties with the outside world including their families, upon which leaving became virtually impossible. At the height of his ascent in the Branch Davidians, Koresh proclaimed to have over 20 wives, about half of which were under 18.
The tragic climax of the Waco Siege moments after the
FBI set it ablaze killing everyone inside. 
These are details that Martha Marcy May Marlene explores with devastating precision and grittiness. The psychological impact that being inducted into a cult has one a young person (usually woman) is astronomically debilitating, and one doesn't usually fully recover even after they leave. The sexual control that Hawkes' character portrays makes his performance visceral and sadly familiar. It is reminiscent of a phenomenon that in America has destroyed thousands of lives, and continues to be a very serious problem as we saw with the FLDS sect at the Yearning for Zion compound.
It's a film that doesn't shy away from difficult sexual themes and that is why I immediately respected it. It's very raw and in your face, and sometimes that's what we need. 

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