Between Sound of My Voice and Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2011’s Sundance Film Festival was a big year for cults and brainwashing. You know what kind of movies I like? Ones about cults and brainwashing! Although not everyone would argue that either of these movies are “horror” films, in certain contexts, the themes brought about in these movies can be quite horrific. I think that’s one reason I like these movies so much, because for every person who watches a film about cults and finds the content to be absurd and ridiculous, you’ll also have someone like me who recognizes the characters’ behavior and can see similarities between them and people we encounter in our daily lives. Also, since I feel like the ending of the film is something that helped sell the story as a whole, I’m not going to spoil it for you and recommend you check it out for yourself. How do you like THAT, people who get angry with me for including spoilers?! You’ll have no reason to be angry THIS time! Hahahahaha!
“Why would you guys even put trash bags on the ground if you didn’t want us to jerk off?! What? You want us to puke up apples? Well now I’ve heard EVERYTHING!”
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have been preparing themselves for weeks to infiltrate and expose a cult for the purposes of a documentary. They have groomed themselves properly, they have followed the specific directions, and even learned the super secret cult handshake. When they finally meet the cult’s leader, Maggie (Brit Marling), we learn that the reason she has a following is that she claims she comes from 2054 and that she’s inexplicably ended up in 2010. While Lorna appears to remain focused on the task at hand, the more time that Peter spends with the group, the more Lorna and the audience question whether he has started believing what Maggie is telling him or if he’s just that good of an actor. It then comes as no surprise that Lorna is the one approached by a federal agent who is seeking assistance in exposing “Maggie” as being a fraud, but when Peter honors Maggie’s wishes to bring to her an 8-year-old girl that he is the substitute teacher of, we learn just a little bit more about Maggie’s real story, but not enough to satisfy neither Lorna nor Peter.
The proof of Maggie being a time traveler was that she had a tattoo of an anchor. This means that everyone in my neighborhood is a time traveler, apparently.
I think the biggest strength of this movie was the structure of the narrative and the way it was edited. Throughout the whole movie, title cards would pop up with “ONE”, “TWO”, etc., leading up to “TEN”, which I felt really heightened the tension. Although we didn’t know what number they were working towards, each title card felt like a new chapter, so you knew you were just that much further along in the story. It was difficult to tell the passage of time of the whole movie, whether it was over a few weeks or a few months, but it didn’t really matter. We would spend just enough time Maggie and her cult to understand that whether she was telling the truth or she was making it up, she was charismatic enough that were her attention focused on us, we could probably buy what she was selling. Another interesting thing going on is that the further into the movie you got, the stronger the performances the actors were giving. The three leads were kind of just reading lines at the beginning of the film, but the further the audience and the further the characters got into the inner workings of Maggie’s cult, the three actors were more and more convincing. Maybe this was just a coincidence, but it’s also possible that those performances were intended to be a little more bland, and the more emotionally invested the audience got, the more effort the actors were putting in towards selling either the brainwashing angle or the possible truth that Maggie was trying to convince everybody of. There were also a few moments where Peter and Lorna debate over how far into the cult they are getting, and how far might be too far, and Peter makes a few points about how boring and mundane their lives, as well as the audience’s lives, and whether you are buying what a cult has to offer or just pretending, it’s worth being part of something bigger. Fore me, that’s ultimately what a cult is: a group of people who are willing to blindly accept the truths of what someone is selling them for the sake of making your life that much more bearable. Whether that means a group of people in a basement being led by someone from the future, or going to a weekly gathering of an organized religion, it’s all about people trying to make sense of their lives in an insensible world. Even though it’s not a traditional horror film, it’s definitely a tense movie about people trying to find meaning in their lives.
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