“You seem like more of a Marcy May.”
Who knows how and why a young woman enters a cult? If you watch Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’ll still be none the wiser.
Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) runs away from the farm run by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes), gets picked up by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and becomes Martha once more. Living with Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy), Martha is haunted by partially formed memories of the last two years.
It would be hard to give Martha Marcy May Marlene away, except to say that a cult can subsume a person’s identity so completely that they can no longer say who they truly are; there are different rules on the farm and in real life. Anything can be normalised in so enclosed a space, and re-entry into society isn’t going to be quite so easy.
There’s a lot of digging to be done in this movie, and there’s a lot of motivation to be searched for; whether it’s to be found is another matter entirely. The cult’s rules are self-evident but they aren’t strictly backed by any logic other than the idea that women are the sexual play things of men, and are a very distant second as a gender. It would be interesting to study the psychology behind apparently headstrong women allowing themselves to be completely subjugated by one fifty year old man who can play the guitar, but writer director Sean Durkin doesn’t give us that opportunity.
The multitude of questions raised by Martha Marcy May Marlene is likely to intrigue some viewers and frustrate others, but there is some comfort in the knowledge that Martha is not the most reliable vehicle for the dissemination of information. Boundaries are observed in the real world that were non-existent on the farm, and Martha is merely lucky that she does not yet have a wider society to deal with. On the farm we’re given an entirely alien scenario, and we see how Marcy May fits into it, but no clue is ever provided as to how she came to be a teacher and a leader. Plainly traumatised by her experiences, it’s almost conceivable that she can only remember 101 minutes of her last two years.
Martha Marcy May Marlene has been edited to be disorienting, with Olsen sometimes moving between Martha and Marcy May in a single cut. There is a moment of great payoff where the audience doesn’t question Martha’s actions because they think she’s still Marcy May, and it’s not until she’s being berated for doing the wrong thing that one realises what precisely has just unfolded. Most of the film is uncomfortable and oppressive, but this fits with the subject matter. Only Patrick and Lucy need moral and logical consistency, and they provide enough of it, but only so much of the work can be carried by them; Martha takes her toll on everyone, particularly when everyone else has got their own lives to lead – outside of a collective.
Paulson and Olsen play off each other well, with absolutely no warmth; their fourteen year age gap has only been widened by Martha’s two years in the undisclosed wilderness. Olsen’s wild oscillations in mood reflect her inability to grasp where she might be at any given moment, and what standards she has to meet. Paulson plays her increasingly grudging sisterly duties well, and Durkin is wise enough not to force a complete marital breakdown between her and Dancy.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very well made film, but it’s not entirely savoury. Essentially every directorial choice (with the exception of the horribly over exposed film) makes perfect sense, allowing its inherent frustrations to be forgiven, if begrudged. Watch this movie without expecting it to give you any of the “how” or “why” and it will be more satisfying than otherwise, but you’ll still be left with nagging questions that can never be answered. By movie’s end, you have become Martha.