Debut film from emerging talent, Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a physiological thriller that has been doing the festival circuit for quiet a while now but has been completely snubbed by the Oscars in favour of all the feel good films that have kept the silver screen captive for quiet some time now… who knows, maybe the Oscar panel were angry with Elizabeth Olsens sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley for New York Minute back in 2004? Please don’t give up reading now though as Elizabeth Olsen plays a character so far removed from the types her sisters portray that you might actually second guess if they were related at all.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fantastic portrayal of the fragility of the human condition once it has been beaten, broken down and compounded to a state, which is barely recognisable as rational. The film tells the story of a young woman, played by Elizabeth Olsen who tries to readjust to life after leaving a cult like operation in rural upstate New York. Olsen plays the titular character Martha, rechristened Marcy May by cult leader Patrick, played here by the haunting John Hawkes. In the opening scene we find Martha attempting to flee the cult and make contact with her sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson. Lucy collects Martha and invites her to stay in her rented house on the lake in Connecticut with her husband Ted played by Hugh Dancy.
Over the course of their two-week stay we see that Martha, who had been in the cult and out of contact with her sister for two years, is having serious issues adjusting to life in the real world. In one of the early scenes, before we see how deeply she has been affected by life within the cult, we see Martha strip down naked to swim in the lake, something Martha finds no issue with, but comes as a shock to her sister. Life within the cult then begins to reveal itself, we see how the cult was composed, men eat first while the women, who prepared the meal, must wait in the hall until the men are finished. The men hunt, read and play guitar while the women sew and prepare meals while working on the farm. Life in the cult from the onset seems quiet tranquil, if not a bit antiquated. We also see how Martha was lured into a sense of security by cult leader Patrick, clearly a skilled orator and well read man, he plays on Martha’s insecurities, fear of abandonment, longing for comfort and stability and even entices her further with a siren song. Slowly but surely the damage inflicted by the cult comes to the fore, Martha starts to experience severe bouts of paranoia, convinced that the cult is trying to get to her and the audience is left questioning whether or not this is the case also, the flashbacks indicating a life of constant surveillance, as all signs point to something strange going. As more revelations of the life Martha lived while in the cult start to unfurl, we are given a glimpse into how Martha ended up this way. After cult leader Patrick indoctrinates woman into a cult, through what can only be described as a drugged induced rape, sexual orgies become the norm. Back on the lake, Martha continues to put herself in situations unbecoming of an adjusted member of society, making it harder and harder for Lucy, her sister, to come to terms with Martha living with herself and her husband. She sleeps for most of the day and talks less and less, snapping in and out of daydreams and arguments that come out with outlandish statements that clearly hold significance in Martha fragile mental state. The film comes to a head when Lucy confronts Martha one last time trying to get her to open up, but in a burst of cruelty Martha abashes her last chance of making amends with Lucy and it is recommended professional help be sought after. The closing scene is unclear but ties in nicely with everything that the audience has just seen.
The story is told in a very disjointed fashion, jumping from life on the lake to flashbacks of life in the cult, the scenes drift into one another so you are never exactly sure what space in time you are viewing until context is given, this perfectly accompanies Martha’s overall mental health, shifting and questioning every scene, particularly towards the end of the feature. This is a film that should be viewed dry though so I am at ends not to give away too much detail about the whole story. For a psychological thriller it has a consistent sense of suspense building slowly throughout. Information unravels very slowly and at just the right times, upon thinking about this one could construe this to be a very cheap trick with the use of the disjointed scenes, essentially giving the filmmaker licence to feed the audience what they want, when they want to, but it works well and nothing seems fake or desperate.
Elizabeth Olsen as Martha is absolutely superb; she is at just the right age to play the naivety of the central character and definitely stands out as a talent to watch out for in the future. John Hawkes as Patrick, the cult leader, is fantastic also, he appears only in snippets for the most part, a god like figure overseeing his flock on the farm and immerging when necessary to whisper sultry words of ‘wisdom’ or impart his warped knowledge as he sees fit. While he doesn’t command much screen time, his presence is felt throughout the movie. In later scenes Martha’s paranoia is played out in full and the audience cant help but think about the effect Patrick had on her.
Apparently many people have been two minds about the ending which, not to give anything away, is a bit ambiguous to say the least but I found it to be more than suitable and definitely leaves you with a kernel more to talk about after the viewing experience is over. The film is well shot, it utilizes landscape to great effect, wide shots hit home on the solitary nature of the central character, everything is in open space and no city living is revealed.
All in all writer, director Durkin does an incredible job for a debut feature film, if only on story alone, it engrosses the viewer from the onset. The first time I saw a trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene some of the lines seemed a bit contrived but given context the script is tight and the overall film is well crafted and certainly warrants a viewing.