I’d heard excellent reports about Martha Marcy May Marlene ever since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year. As with most indie films, finding it outside of a festival can be difficult. That’s why I’m grateful for chains of theaters such as Landmark that cater to independent movies – bless them.
After a few establishing shots, the movie shows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) making a break for freedom from an agrarian cult she’s been caught up in. The leader of the cult had changed her name to Marcy May, a common practice in cults to disassociate the inductee from their previous identity. After a dash through the woods, she makes it to a nearby town and calls her sister to come pick her up.
From there the movie splits its time frame, looking at Martha’s time with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) after her escape and contrasting it with Marcy May’s initiation into the cult under the control of Patrick (John Hawkes). While Lucy doesn’t understand what happened to Martha during the years she disappeared, it’s clear she’s different. Martha’s developed a knack for gardening, and when she decides to go swimming at the lake house where Lucy and Patrick are staying, Martha simply walks down to the dock, strips off her clothes, and dives in.
At the same time you see Marcy May slipping deeper into the cult family. It’s seeking a utopian society that Patrick has modeled from different movements and cultures. They haven’t yet reached their goal of self-sufficiency on their farm, so the group supplements their endeavor by stealing from wealthy homes nearby their upstate New York location. As Marcy May sinks deeper into the cult, the violence quotient rises, until a moment that finally causes her break.
But even though she’s no longer physically among the cultists, Martha finds herself caught up in the behavior they’ve imprinted on her mind. The revealing of the name Marlene shows how far she’d gone into their world. It is a quietly chilling moment. In the end the question is whether Martha has truly escaped, mentally or physically.
In effect, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a thriller, though it eschews the Hollywood set pieces to focus instead on character. We’re drawn into Martha/Marcie May’s struggle as well as her paranoia. Or is it paranoia? Writer/director Sean Durkin’s feature debut doesn’t give simple answers, which makes it all the more disturbing.
Sarah Paulson effectively communicates Lucy’s long-suffering nature in relationship to her sister. As Patrick, John Hawkes gives another riveting performance to match his Oscar-nominated turn last year in Winter’s Bone, though he clearly differentiates the roles.
The performance that holds the entire movie together is Elizabeth Olsen’s in the title role (or should it be ‘titles?’). Much has been made in the press of her being the younger sister of those financial titans of cuteness, twins Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Within a minute of her appearance on the screen, all of that is forgotten. Elizabeth fully embodies both the physicality and the shattered psyche necessary to be Martha/Marcy May. She can say some of the most hurtful lines yet retain the sympathy of the audience throughout the movie. I’m as sure as anyone can ever be that she will receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
This is a disturbing movie, partly because it doesn’t give you the safety of Hollywood conventions when telling the story. No car chases, no speeches about the sanctity of the individual – just a trip inside a very messed-up mind. It is a trip that will haunt you.