“Cult” as a label has recently re-entered national conversation on the heels of conservative voters trying to figure out how to best think about Mitt Romney’s Mormon religious affiliation. The ensuing confusion expressed at times in this debate is a good example of how fluid and misunderstood this term often is. For recent generations, the images connected to this term are violent and infrequent, yet it is still exotic enough to makes us listen with a little more interest when it appears in the news. Because of this, I often begin class lectures on cults and new religious movements with this thought in mind: Cults tend to enter media and public discourse in unconventional ways, bringing with them a sense of fear, intrigue, and suspicion that does not always attend news about more established religious movements.

Aside from YouTube clips of various moments in the history of western new religious movements, media resources coordinating the experience of cult members with constructive reflection on the nature of religious experience are few and far between. And excepting the rare occurrences such as the Mitt Romney case, few areas of public discourse provide helpful contemporary reflection in this regard. But I would like to suggest that Sean Durkin’s recent film Martha Marcy May Marlene and related critical response is just such a rare opportunity to talk about cults and new religious movements with greater clarity.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with an escape from what at first is a mysterious bunch of people. While on the run, Martha decides to call her sister even though they haven’t talked to each other for two years. Her sister is happy to help and transfers Martha to her husband’s large and comfortable Connecticut lake house. As the film begins to alternate between her time at this lake house and memories of the upstate New York farm from which she has escaped, we start to realize that Martha has just slipped away from an abusive quasi-religious community.

But what happens next is far from your average sensationalized cult film, in that Martha’s story unfolds almost as a case study in the experience of a cult developing in upstate New York. Her memories track the agricultural vibe of the community, the sharing of clothing and goods, and all the ways in which male members had priority over the rhythms of her routines. This latter element extends to one of the core initiation rites of the community, in which all female members become the sexual property of their leader, Patrick.

Martha, renamed Marcy May after she is drugged and then raped by Patrick, soon discovers that she is expected to become part of this process by discipling new female members through this degradation. She is told that this is all okay, that it is a blessing and she will come to cherish her first time. Patrick confirms this by drafting a folk hymn to the experience, at which point the depersonalizing tone of the film’s wonky title becomes a bit clearer. In addition to Marcy May, she also becomes Marlene – the name all female members must use when answering the phone. Later scenes in the film give us a sense of how hard these new names are to shake.

We could say that the film occurs in this psychological space between Martha and Marlene. Due to the way the film alternates between the memories of farm and her time at the lake house, there really are two communities being addressed throughout. Marcy May often has a snide, programmed response to her wealthy brother-in-law and the domestic routines of their charmed life. The two years she has spent with Patrick manifests itself in her freewheeling body-consciousness and seeming inability to recognize basic personal boundaries. She resists her sister’s attempts to figure out what has happened over the past two years, eventually proclaiming resolutely that, “I don’t need your guidance now, and I didn’t then. I am a teacher and a leader.” On the other hand, this ungrounded self-assurance soon falters under Martha’s growing fear that Patrick and the cult are tracking her down. It isn’t very clear how legitimate her paranoia is, but a final memory of her time with them confirms that this is a very real concern.

Some critics and audiences have had difficulty with the indeterminate ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene, which slips from the screen in a moment of paranoia that provides no conventional closure for Martha’s (or Marlene’s?) plight. But this misses the concrete focus of the film on the way experiences of a religious community can dramatically effect our bodies, perceptions of  physical boundaries, and even our physical responses to various memories and confrontations. The almost dreamlike note on which the film ends evokes the epistemological dismay that occurs when our theoretical labels for religious communities and experiences begin slipping. (Which is not an experience limited to people trying to exit fringe religious communities. This dismay is – in essence – the heart of any religious experience.)

This is where Durkin’s film excels, in that it resists the common temptation to trot out the term “cult” as shorthand for a religious claim we find odd or distasteful. Whether intentional or not, the alternating narrative structure of the film provides almost anthropological points of reflection on Martha’s religious experience. And if in the spirit of James the film invites us to grapple with Martha’s experience on its own terms, it moves us with Durkheim to consider these as expressions of something fundamentally human. Durkin’s direction captures the emotional and psychological complexity of this connection – which in Martha’s case is quite distressing. She becomes emblematic of the desperations and insecurities that often serve as the psychological structure for such abusive religious communities. There are elements of new religious movements this film does not address – such as the persuasive role novel or manufactured spiritual revelation can play in these experiences. But, the grave distance between Martha and Marlene is inhabited by a cinema worthy of continued reflection.