John Hawkes’ Strange and Dangerous Sex Appeal

Everyone loves Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Now, some adulation for the movie’s cult leader John Hawkes.

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Drew Innis / Twentieth Century Fox Film

John Hawkes performs in a scene from Martha Marcy May Marlene

In this week’s issue of TIME, I rave about Elizabeth Olsen’s star making performance as a girl who escapes a dangerous cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The movie dodges back and forth between her present—during which she behaves erratically while staying with clueless sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson)—and her past, in which she falls under the sway of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). It’s such a hazy, sensory-rich jigsaw of reminder and recollection that I don’t feel done with Martha Marcy May Marlene. Or as Alec Baldwin called it, while praising Olsen on Twitter, “that film with the unfortunate title.”

And I didn’t give proper due to Hawkes, the film’s other great performance. The Oscar-nominee (for Winter’s Bone) plays it quiet—he might be the least showy cinematic cult leader ever—but he’s so effectively terrifying that he might replace Bob of Twin Peaks in my nightmares. He’s not on screen all that much but his presence pervades the film, which hinges on the possibility that he might reappear at any moment to reclaim the girl he renamed Marcy May. Lucy thinks her sister just broke up with a boyfriend and never asks the right questions. Her ignorance helps drive the movie’s considerable suspense, because how can anyone prepare for a threat they don’t even know about?

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Patrick is one of a trio of cult leaders in fictions this month—realistic boogeymen just in time for Halloween. Halfway through the Martha I developed the admittedly sick hope that Patrick would track Martha down; he has the kind of slippery charisma you want to see more of. I can’t say the same for the cult leader in Kevin Smith’s Red State, out on DVD this week. Michael Parks plays a religious zealot with a particular desire to punish gays. Parks has one good sermon scene, but when things get bloody and silly the performance sinks into parody. Jim Harrison’s just released new novel, The Great Leader, features a cultist named Dwight with a penchant for having sex with underage girls (he is referred to evocatively as being like “the hottest teacher at a local school”). But he is overshadowed by the retired cop on the cult’s trail, horney depressive Sunderson.

It would be easy to mimic the stereotypical guru look: long hair, a self-important manner and wild eyes. But Hawkes does it all in t-shirts and jeans, looking about as exotic as the guy selling bread at your local farmer’s market.  All that seems normal about him makes him that much more fearsome. Patrick’s actions—and their consequences—become more disturbing as the movie goes on, but he remains unflappable. (In contrast, Lucy’s husband, played by Hugh Dancy, seems petulant and undesirable.) Hawkes and first time director Sean Durkin both understand a movie about a cult has to include an element of allure that works as much on the audience as it does on the cult members themselves, otherwise it’s just a stereotype about whack jobs living in some remote location together. I can’t wait to see what Philip Seymour Hoffman does in his turn as a cult leader for director Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master, due in 2013, or Another Earth’s Brit Marling, who plays a female cult leader, in the Sundance film Sound of My Voice (no release date yet).

Hawkes made a big impression on me in Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know but I never expected this gangly actor, whose bony features so reflect his surname, to make such a convincing Svengali. I should have had more faith in him; in a career dating back to the ’80s, Hawkes has continually demonstrated what a true chameleon he is. Consider his other role this fall, as a scruffy janitor in Contagion, plaintively appealing for help keeping his son safe from the plague. As a performer he always shines; it’s just this time he gleams with the high gloss of a strange and dangerous sex appeal. You wouldn’t want Patrick anywhere near your daughter.

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