Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

The debut feature film by writer-director Sean Durkin really packs a powerful punch, bringing to light the artist’s palpable sensibility, as this directorial effort displays evident signs of an undeniably promising career for the Canadian born filmmaker. An intriguing analytical mishmash of reality and recollection, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of Martha, a damaged young woman, haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, who struggles to re-assimilate with her older sister subsequent to fleeing from an abusive cult. Oddly beginning at the ‘middle point’ of an obviously much larger narrative, Martha Marcy May Marlene explores Martha’s psychological reconditioning, fear, distrust and a woman’s extreme desire to escape her past, while struggling to find her identity in her fearful state of confusion.

Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t play out like your typical ‘wrapped-up’ conventional storyline and simply focuses on the first two weeks of a woman’s unsteady re-adjustment back into regular society. As picture opens, we meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a broken, twenty-something female, who has just fled from a cruel and controlling cult, located at a remote farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains, a Southeastern portion of the state of New York. After years of being ‘off-the-grid,’ Martha erratically phones her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), asking to be picked up from a near-by bus shelter. Upon rescuing her sister, Lucy takes Martha back to her lakeside cottage in Connecticut, a home-away-from-home, which she shares with her newlywed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), a getaway house the couple use when taking some time out from their busy lives back in the big city. But as Martha — who quickly becomes a shard in the pair’s domestic situation — tries to adjust to a ‘normal’ way of living, she is continually haunted by the aching hurt and memories of her former life in the cult.

... she's just a picture ...
… she’s just a picture …

While initially coming across as a little underwhelming, Martha Marcy May Marlene certainly lingers and manages to creep under your skin — I, for one, found myself constantly consumed by the film’s narrative, and Olsen’s powerhouse performance, long after the picture had concluded. A deeply unsettling and atmospheric flick, which says so much in its dialogue and silences, Martha Marcy May Marlene succeeds in making the audience feel highly uncomfortable as the sheer quietness and stillness of the picture only juxtaposes its bleak and frightful reality. Jody Lee Lipes’, Tiny Furniture (2010), cinematography further adds to this sensation, switching from unnervingly distant to uncomfortably close; the mixed bag reflects Martha’s psyche in an interesting way. A dark moody piece, exploring Martha’s earnest inner torment, Durkin frames the film in a similar vein to Christopher Noaln’s Memento (2000), jumping back-and-forth in time, between Martha in the present — residing at her sister’s lake house — to her prior, past-life while living on the collective farm. Flawlessly blending the two world together, viewers are weaved in and out of timelines with care, never once becoming confused as to what is memory and what is current, present-day reality.

The film is centered entirely on, and around, Martha, allowing her unreliability to throw the narrative into off-putting and often disturbing directions, as we, the audience, watch the overwhelmed Martha try to reclaim an ‘ordinary’ life. But the haunting memories of her past trigger chilling paranoia — and nowhere seems safe — as the fragile lines between actuality and delusion begin to blur with her jumbled mind constantly finding reasons to revert back to the time she spent away from the governing body of society. An impactful depiction of a victim’s confusion, we see Martha — who doesn’t tell her rescuer the details of her time away, leaving out all mention of the cult — attempt to grapple with her unhealthy delirium. Uncertain as to what is fact and what sheer fictional delusion, Martha exhibits unusual behavior, with little regard for the norms of conventional American civilization and, in her state of misperception, takes on the persona of two or more people all at the same time.

Dazed and Confused
Dazed and Confused

Martha Marcy May Marlene subtly comments on the dangers of cults, systems who see themselves as higher or superior to the rest of the governed world, where the leader demands unquestionable loyalty and devotion to all teaching without exception. Within the picture, the reasons as to why Martha accepts to join the cult are kept vague — never making it entirely clear as to what she was initially running away from — though it’s hinted that Martha was in search of a family, or a place of belonging, which she finds in the charmingly deceitful Patrick (John Hawkes), a substitute parent figure to Martha and the group’s charismatic leader, who keeps a watchful eye over all his followers. At first, we see the positive aspects and elements of the cult shine through, which primarily draw Martha in — it seems fun, carefree and loving — though there is an eeriness about it the whole time; however, it’s not too long until we discover that the members are being manipulated by its enigmatic ‘chief,’ Patrick, and the community’s true objectives slowly begin to surface.

Making full use of her alluring, ethereal demeanor, the stunning Elizabeth Olsen, Godzilla (2014), delivers a mesmerizing star-is-born performance, driving the narrative as the titular Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen is magnetic and commands the screen, implanting the character with dewy-eyed complexity — a mix of bewilderment, shock, disgust and intrigue — as we watch the young woman navigate through her messy memories and unstable depictions. Watching Martha’s arc blossom into something terrifying is really quite compelling and the rather inexperienced actress accomplishes such a feat with relative ease. John Hawkes, American Gangster (2007), continues to prove what a remarkable support player he is, embodying Patrick, the charming, credible seducer, and leader of the commune, impeccably. Hawkes plays Patrick as a vividly unsettling ‘antagonist,’ balancing the character’s illusive attraction and subtle sinisterness. Watching Hawkes’ Patrick serenade Martha in front of a conditioned crowd — playing Jackson C. Frank’s, ‘Marcy’s Song’ — may go down as one of the most morbidly evocative, yet frightening scenes in the entire picture.

All dressed up with nowhere to go!
All dressed up with nowhere to go!

Additional cast include Sarah Paulson, Serenity (2005), as Martha’s sister Lucy, who takes on a custodian/guardian type duty, concerned for her sister’s mental well-being, and British actor Hugh Dancy, Black Hawk Down (2001), in the role of Ted, Lucy’s patient husband — enraged and puzzled by Martha’s unusual behavior — who puts up with Martha for his wife’s sake but stresses the importance of professional medical help, stating that Martha needs to be moved to a psychiatric facility to fully recover. While Paulson and Dancy do a fairly credible job in their minor parts, they are not given all that much to do outside of helping propel the story forward, being mere plot devices other than anything else; through their presence does enhance Olsen’s character, making her slightly more complex.

On an interesting side note, the picture’s odd title refers to three of the names that Olsen’s character is known by throughout the course of the film. ‘Martha’ is her given first name, the one that her parents assigned her; ‘Marcy May’ is the name that Patrick bestows upon her when she first enters the cult — part of the name-change ritual which gives the character a new identity; and ‘Marlene’ is the name that all the cult’s women are required to use when answering the compound’s telephone — as made clear in the explicit list of instructions that are visibly written on the wall beside the phone box. Working as a good companion piece to Martha Marcy May Marlene is Durkin’s short film titled, Mary Last Seen (2010), starring Brady Corbet, who plays the alluring cult recruiter, Watts, in both the short and feature. Created as a means to acquire funding for his larger project, Mary Last Seen focuses on how someone gets lured into a cult whereas Martha Marcy May Marlene is more about what happens to someone when they get out of one.

A shot at a new life
A shot at a new life

Adorned by an unnerving credit track, ‘Marlene,’ performed by Jackson C. Frank, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an electrifying directorial debut effort for writer-director Sean Durkin and an outstanding achievement for the heart-stopping Olsen, who packs one of the single best female performances of recent years. A dark, lingering psychological thriller of a woman re-acclimatising herself into the ‘proper functioning’ society after breaking free from an violently morbid, brainwashing cult, Martha Marcy May Marlene is bursting with spine-tingling performances and stands as a gripping entry in the ‘suspense’ genre, showcasing some forcefully unsettling themes and images. While somewhat not intrinsically cinematic, and not as in-you-face as many other similarly themed American productions, this ambiguous flick’s restraints and subtleness speak a thousand words. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that demands to be seen … and truly experienced.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Martha Marcy May Marlene is released through 20th Century Fox Australia