CULTS: The Girls, a novel, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film

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Sometimes I do a two-for-one, packaging a thematically-linked novel and film review, such as the novel The Revenant and the film 1917.

Today’s theme is cults, which I’ve become interested in recently, although I have no interest in joining or starting one. The two works of art: The Girls, by Emma Cline (2016), and Martha Marcy May Marlene, written and directed by Sean Durkin (2011).

Apparently, various cults share a lot of common attributes. Invariably there is a charismatic male leader (at least we’re supposed to believe he’s charismatic) who plays guitar poorly and has on-demand sex with a brainwashed follower of his choosing. There is usually a run-down ranch, awful food scarce in quantity, shared clothing and beds, a few toddlers in the background. Members dumpster-dive, steal, and commit other crimes. The cult members have been love-starved or otherwise emotionally damaged—why else would they join a cult?

Both this novel and this movie share all of these attributes. Let’s start with The Girls. The novel is told from the viewpoint of an adult woman looking back on her experience as a 14-year-old (14!) who got involved in a Charles Manson-like cult after being mesmerized by the sight of several young women in a park who were mentors.

Cline’s writing is beautiful, so beautiful it sometimes take precedence over storytelling, which results in toning down the tension. Also, because the reader already knows that Evie, the narrator, survives the cult experience and goes on to lead a somewhat normal existence, we know she wasn’t the one involved in the murders (no spoiler; it’s a lot like the Manson narrative).

The novel is set in the present time, when Evie is housesitting for a friend, and flashes back to her teen years when she was drawn into the cult. Young Evie’s transformation, her dissatisfying home life with her mother, the way she is enthralled by and taken in by the young cult member Suzanne, her naivety and her desire to belong and to be loved—these are the strongest parts of the novel and they make for excellent reading.

Not so compelling, but nonetheless well-written, is her present-day narrative, when the young adult son of the friend she is housesitting for shows up with his girlfriend, a nervous and vulnerable teen that conjures a parallel to the young Evie. They know about Evie’s previous life all those years ago, and their inquisitiveness sparks a number of the flashbacks.

The novel reaches climax on the night of the murders, which Evie is spared being involved in, which again lessens the stakes, as does the fact the murdered people were not really characters in the book, so other than the gruesomeness, it’s hard to feel for them.

Overall, The Girls is an easy and fascinating read, a remarkable first novel from a young and extremely talented writer.

Martha Marcy Marlene May features an outstanding performance by Elizabeth Olsen in the title role. Her name is Martha, but the cult leader (Patrick, played by John Hawkes), renames her Marcy May, and all the women at the cult answer the phone at the compound saying their name is Marlene.

The film opens with the usual cult depictions—communal sleeping and clothes and chores and poverty and Mr. Charisma—followed by Martha packing a bag and escaping through the woods. She ends up in town where she calls the sister she is estranged from, but she is so emotionally distraught that her sister comes to get her.

She stays with her sister and her husband at their huge home on a lake in Connecticut, and so begins Martha’s flashbacks to her cult experience, including drug-induced rape, mind-numbing chores, shooting guns, breaking into houses, and eventually a murder. Familiar. Yet stunning.

Martha is unable to integrate back into life. She strips down to swim in the lake, only to be yelled at by her sister. She hears her sister and her husband having sex in the next room, and goes in there and lies next to them on the bed. As the film progresses, Martha begins having delusions: she thinks the bartender at a party is a cult member. She sees a member of the cult sitting on a boulder across the lake. When her sister finally is taking her to receive psychiatric help, she thinks they’re being followed.

Is Martha really being pursued by the cult, or is she suffering a mental breakdown? You can interpret the events either way, which is what makes the film so powerful, along with Elizabeth Olsen’s performance. Top-notch storytelling.

A parting thought on cult leaders: I don’t see the charisma. Dirty men in dirty clothes speaking in calm platitudes and playing guitar badly. Women flock to this? And then I realize it’s not the leader who is so mesmerizing and powerful, it’s the women who are so lost and vulnerable.  

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.

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