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October 20, 2011


Women in Cults! double feature

Elizabeth Olsen and Vera Farmiga

I've seen two movies lately that would make a great double feature if you're interested in creepy patriarchal societies and how they squash independent-minded young women: Higher Ground, starring (and directed by) Vera Farmiga, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring non-twin Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen.

I really like both of these movies. Each of the protagonists first conform to the rigid and oppressive rules that other members of their group have accepted as the only way to live, then start to rebel against them, and ultimately look outside their groups for something else.

And it's pretty amazing how much they have in common. Both are about insular communities led by charismatic, charming, authoritarian male leaders. These communities appear to be about cooperation and togetherness and love, but as soon as our quietly rebellious female leads step out of line, all that goes out the window, and suddenly the purpose of the group seems to be the men controlling the women and not a whole lot else.

The two leads even look a lot alike: they both have those luminous, translucent, moon-like faces and big bright eyes. It's easy to be interested in the inner struggles of these women to figure out who they are when they're as expressive and beautiful as Vera Farmiga and Elizabeth Olsen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (which I keep wanting to call Maggie and Milly and Molly and May) is a lot more extreme. People are talking about it as the Girl Escapes a Cult movie, which is accurate, though no one in the movie ever says the word "cult". Martha doesn't know she's part of a cult, which makes watching her decide to leave it and struggle to get her head together afterwards kind of maddening, because neither she nor anyone else around her realizes how completely fucked in the head she is. I kept wanting to grab her oblivious older sister, whose house she goes to after escaping the cult, and shake her shouting "Your sister was seduced by an evil brainwashing cult and is now extremely obviously displaying every PTSD symptom that exists! Call a shrink NOW!" It's a little frustrating sometimes, but it's still good.

Higher Ground is a lot less culty (and less violent and rapey.) The community Vera Farmiga lives in is like a Christian fundamentalist version of a '70's hippie commune or the Dharma Initiative from "Lost". It's a more subtle movie than MMMM, but it also didn't make me feel like hiding under my bed after watching it. I'm still a little shaken by MMMM.

That's mostly because of the one actor who's in both movies: John Hawkes. This is the year that everybody starts knowing who John Hawkes is. This guy is phenomenal. He plays Vera Farmiga's dad in Higher Ground, who loves his family but blows it as a husband and father, and the suave, manipulative cult leader in MMMM. He said in an interview that he didn't research cult leaders in preparing for the role, but he nails every quality that famous cult leaders possess. He's totally terrifying and great. (coincidence: he also played Lennon, member of the Dharma Initiative!)

Potential Future Oscar Nominee Elizabeth Olsen
is getting a lot of attention, and she's good, but it's hard to see what kind of character is underneath all that clinically diagnosable crazy-girl stuff. I wonder if people would be exclaiming about her so much if she were less beautiful or less naked in front of a very unhurried, lingering camera, but she does OK.

But Vera Farmiga--wow. I could watch her in anything. She's one of the best things about every movie I've seen her in, probably one of the better actresses around now. And a pretty great director, too! Hope she keeps getting good parts in movies without having to direct all of them.

categories: Celebrities, Movies, Religion, Women
posted by amy at 5:31 PM | #

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If you've never seen the "Blank Stare" episode of Strangers with Candy- Amy Sedaris's take on Women-In-Cult storylines, I highly encourage you to do so as a companion piece to these. It's pretty brilliant, and probably my favorite episode of that series.

Posted by: ooghe at October 22, 2011 10:47 AM

Oh cool, I haven't seen it, thanks for the suggestion. You can watch the episode on the Comedy Central site:


(sorry it took so long to post this, Robert, your comment was lost in an ocean of spam.) (delicious!)

Posted by: amy at October 31, 2011 11:02 AM

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