Don’t be deterred by the mouthful of a title. Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a compelling portrait of a young woman struggling to pry herself, both physically and mentally, from the web of an abusive cult. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, who, in a search for stability, stumbles across the charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Aside from their cult’s misogynistic ideology, Patrick’s “family” appears relatively harmless. Innocuous nights by the fire, communal gardening, and group guitar playing comprise Martha’s daily routine. However, we know something catalyzes Martha’s later neurotic state, and viewers anxiously anticipate the inciting trauma. Sure enough, the sinister undertones of this backwoods “family” float to the surface in a series of flashbacks. A refreshing departure from the classical narrative, this non-linear storyline presents viewers with the game of piecing together Martha’s memories and deciphering the depth of her character from fragments of footage.
Patrick’s cult is remarkably similar to that of Charles Manson. Each time the family is in need of money, they send a group to rob a house and murder whoever threatens them. As if straight out of Helter Skelter, one night Martha is allowed to accompany a “midnight run,” and witnesses her trusted friend Katie murder an innocent man. (Katie parallels Manson’s accomplice Sadie Atkins as the maternal, longtime zealot.) Martha becomes withdrawn and paranoid, and when tension mounts among the other members of the family, she flees to the supposed safe-haven of her sister’s home.
A newly married, soon-to-be mother with a high-rise in NYC and a cabin in the Catskills, Martha’s sister Lucy does not need any skeletons in her closet. We soon realize that Lucy’s attempts to heal her sister are driven by a desire to redeem herself from the guilt of once abandoning Martha. The lack of genuine care is palpable. Each day Martha is chastised for displaying “odd” mannerisms and inappropriate social conduct, and her efforts to become closer with Lucy are rebuffed. Perhaps what is most clever about Martha Marcy May Marlene is how, at certain points, you catch yourself rooting for Martha’s return to her former “family.”
At one point in the film, Martha asks her sister if she ever has trouble distinguishing reality from dreams. Through its chronological time shifts, the film provides viewers with a simulated sense of Martha’s psychological discontinuity. For instance, one moment Olsen is jumping off her sister’s boat, the next she is emerging in a watering hole with her “family.” Though captivating, this warped sense of time and space could also be interpreted as deceitful. Alfred Hitchcock, in his 1950 film Stage Fright, employed a false flashback, and later called this act of audience deception the “second greatest mistake of his career.” Roger Ebert also criticized Durkin’s acts of deceit, stating that “in a serious film, there is no payoff for trickery.” Nonetheless, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a stirring portrayal of artful originality. Often with facial expression and body language alone, Elizabeth Olsen conveys Martha’s psychological strife without the need for explanatory dialogue. As the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, Olsen is automatically associated with their voguishly gaunt and pouty-lipped, but largely irrelevant image. Luckily she quickly repudiates any skepticism of her acting ability, and enters the current cultural milieu with definite dignity.
With a Best Director win at the Sundance Film Festival and multiple nominations at the Toronto Film Festival and The Spirit Awards, Martha Marcy May Marlene is worth watching. It can be accessed on HBOGO.com