Martha Marcy May Marlene is an American independent film about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) and her life in a cult. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, one of the more interesting new voices in American cinema, the film is adamant to reintroduce the words ‘art’ and ‘intelligence’ into the cinema.
Estranged from her family, perennial dropout Martha signs up to a cult run by the initially charismatic Patrick (Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes). In a parallel narrative, the film details Martha’s life with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their expensive rented holiday house, just after she has escaped from the cult. While Martha seems at home in the cult, she is much less so at the home of Lucy and Ted, where she finds it very difficult to take an interest in anything they do or say. As events in the cult takes a more sinister turn, Martha realizes that Patrick is not as well intentioned as she had thought he was. But can she really escape?
The title of the film is hopelessly forgettable, though it does have a thematic basis, suggesting as it does Martha’s split, or splitting, personality. Though her name is Martha, Patrick insists on calling her Marcy May, which marks his first invasion of her identity and the beginning of her new personality. The ‘Marlene’ of the title is much more ambiguous, a name that the members of the cult use when answering the phone and one that may or may not have more sinister connotations. The title represents three different versions of Martha, but there is little to distinguish them. Martha is similarly dressed and conditioned into the society of the cult and of Lucy and Ted. The juxtapositions suggest that both are stripping Martha of her identity, one through the whims of a psychopath and one through the rules and conventions of a materialist society. Is Lucy’s telling Martha to take her feet off the table all that different from Patrick’s wish that the women should eat after the men? Martha’s experiences in the cult and in the holiday home are often compared and contrasted.
The film gleefully plays with the past and present and dreams and reality, frequently transitioning between these poles as objects, sounds and events trigger Martha’s memories. As Martha sits in her sister’s house, she can’t help but relive her experiences in the cult and as those memories escalate so too does her withdrawal from Lucy and Ted. But, like Michael Haneke at his best, Durkin makes the film powerfully suggestive without telling us exactly what it is suggesting. It is a given that something terrible is going to happen, but the film refuses to reveal the what, where, who, why and when. The film is disturbingly effective but banal in its setting and, often, in its mood. The film ends on an ambiguous and/or symbolic note that will anger many more than it will intrigue, but it is a brave and assured conclusion to a film that has no conclusion. That Durkin was astute enough to know this is enough to mark him out as an exciting new voice in American cinema. For others, and certainly for me, it might take a few days of mulling over before you realize that this is the case.
Though Martha Marcy May Marlene is an art film that bears a lot of thought, it does have its simple pleasures. The performances are all fantastic, with most of the cult members being terrifying without doing anything. Paulson and Dancy play characters that really should be a lot more understanding and accepting with a huge amount of understanding and acceptance. In a less interesting and thoughtful film, they would be demonised. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, they are every one of us. John Hawkes continues mixing the terrifying with the enigmatic as he did in Winter’s Bone but why shouldn’t he if he is so good at it. Elizabeth Olsen is a surprise, but only because of her family background. Though the film revolves around the fact that no one can know her, not even herself, Olsen turns out a great performance that suggesting all kinds of undercurrents, more than the film itself cares to reveal.