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When she is offered her dream publishing deal contingent upon first writing the memoir of an eccentric recluse, an uptight young ghostwriter must confront her own past while being faced with a terrifying invitation.
All Madeleine “Maddy” Martin has ever wanted is to be a published writer. Now, after working as a ghostwriter for the eccentric literary pioneer, Georgina Gowdie, Maddy has her chance.
There’s only one catch: before Maddy’s own manuscript can be published, she must go out to the high desert to record and write the memoir of the reclusive Vanessa de Boivin. Vanessa is the granddaughter of the legendary writer, James de Boivin.
Maddy’s father, Mick Martin, was a huge fan of James de Boivin. As a result, Maddy has read all of de Boivin’s books. Tragically, Mick died in a mysterious church fire when Maddy was only six years old.
As Maddy packs, she drops the James de Boivin book to find a card sticking out. The card is an old Tarot card, with a grotesque image of a red devil with white angel wings. The card reads Temperance.
Maddy arrives in the desert near Joshua Tree, driven by Dex, Vanessa’s agent. Dex warns Maddy of Vanessa’s unpredictability, pressing his card into her hand before he leaves.
Maddy meets Vanessa, a childlike 80-year-old. Vanessa shows Maddy to her guesthouse: a renovated sea container. On the way they pass an acacia tree. Surrounding the tree are makeshift altar items, including the same Temperance card that Maddy saw in the book before she left.
Maddy is determined to get Vanessa’s book written. She tries to get Vanessa to share her stories, but Vanessa is easily distracted. She changes the conversation frequently, often prying into Maddy’s life. She continually offers Maddy drops from her purple tincture bottle, a bottle that contains a mysterious liquid.
Strange things happen to Maddy around the de Boivin home. She sees a misty vapor surround Vanessa one morning. She sees this vapor again pour out beneath the doorway.
In the sea container, Maddy picks up a box of matches triggering a flash of a burning dollhouse from her past. As she transcribes her interviews with Vanessa, static cuts in and she hears her own father’s voice. The voice tells Maddy, “it’s time to use your power.”
Vanessa takes Maddy to an art gallery opening in nearby Joshua tree to show her off. After a creepy interaction with a lecherous local, Maddy stumbles outside where she meets Tim. Tim is a journalist from LA, in the desert researching secret societies—specifically, the role of women in secret societies.
Maddy learns from Tim that James de Boivin was banished from the Masons and came to the desert to establish his own Society. The house Vanessa lives in is the home built by James de Boivin.
Back at the de Boivin house, Vanessa’s behavior becomes more eccentric. She smokes her hookah and taunts Maddy, throwing matches at her. When one of the matches explodes into a fireball, Maddy, furious, runs out of the house.
Maddy runs down the road until she gets a signal, then calls a taxi. Joe, the taxi driver, picks her up. She calls Dex, but Dex is dead, surrounded by a puddle of liquid from a purple tincture bottle.
She then calls Georgina, begging her to let her leave, but Georgina refuses. Maddy, terrified and angry, takes a taxi into town where she looks up James de Boivin at the library. Reading about the Society and its rituals sparks a memory in Maddy. When Tim sneaks up on her, she jumps, startled. She discovers from Tim that the initiation into James de Boivin’s Society involves a sex ritual, something they called Temperance.
Maddy returns to the de Boivin house. As Joe (the taxi driver) drives away, the taxi is suddenly t-boned by an 18-wheeler. Maddy, startled, runs up to the sea container, where she refuses Vanessa’s attempts to console her.
The next morning, when Vanessa leaves to pick up her son, Daniel, from the airport, Maddy lets herself into Vanessa’s house. She looks through photographs and papers, discovering that Vanessa had known not just her own father, Mick, but knew of her own birth.
She finds a psychiatrist note from when she was twelve that suggested a possibility of schizophrenia. She finds a note from Georgina saying that she is their “third.” Maddy is shocked, but calmly reorganizes what she finds. She leaves, the windchimes swinging behind her.
That night, Maddy meets Daniel, Vanessa’s son. The next morning, after Vanessa refuses to work, Maddy and Daniel go hiking into the desert behind the de Boivin house, where they stumble upon the site once used for rituals. Later that evening, Daniel appears at the sea container with a bottle of wine. Maddy loses herself and comes onto Daniel strongly. Daniel becomes upset for dishonoring his practice of celibacy. Vanessa catches Daniel at the sea container and drags him back up to the house with her.
The next day, Vanessa invites Maddy up for tea. She serves her a thick cup of chai. As Maddy sips, Vanessa reveals all. She explains that Maddy is part of the powerful “three” that will come together to pass the power in the Society from masculine-rule to feminine. She tells Maddy that she (Vanessa) has telekinesis and Maddy is pyrokinetic, and there is also a hydrokinetic person. She explains that it was difficult keeping Maddy “pure,” thus connecting her with the deaths of Dex and Joe.
The chai is laced with LSD and DMT. Maddy, now very drugged, hits the floor. Daniel and Vanessa dress her for ceremony as the Society members arrive.
Maddy wakes up and stumbles around the house groggily. She eventually makes her way onto the porch, now full of Society members wearing black or white velvet cloaks and grotesque masks of men or women’s faces. Maddy stumbles into the desert, where Daniel finds her and tries to convince her to come do the ritual with him.
As Vanessa, Georgina, Daniel and the other members try to get the ceremony started, Maddy uses all her power to resist. She sets fire to Georgina’s cloak, which Vanessa puts out with her misty vapor. Maddy refuses to join the women and sets fire to the de Boivin mansion. Georgina tries to put it out. A splash is heard, followed by the roar of the crowd.
A small audience claps politely in a New York bookstore. Maddy finishes reading from her book, Mystical Union: The Vanessa de Boivin Story.
Home again, Maddy lights a small brown cigarette. She waves the match out. She closes her eyes and takes a drop from the purple tincture bottle. She opens her eyes and stares at the match – it ignites into a small ball of fire. Maddy smiles.
The windchimes swing at the de Boivin house…