Martha Marcy May Marlene

By Ezra Stead

Martha Marcy May Marlene, USA, 2011

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an excellent, haunting film from first time writer-director Sean Durkin. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a wonderfully disquieting and haunting film, disturbing as much for what it doesn’t show us as for what it does. First-time director Sean Durkin gives us the story in disjointed bits and pieces, moving seamlessly back and forth in time in a way that puts the viewer fully into the confused head-space of its protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, who handily proves with this one performance that she is by far the most talented of her sisters, who include the famous twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley). The film’s style gives it an almost documentary-like immediacy similar to recent films like Antonio Campos’s Afterschool or Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (both 2008). The similarity to Afterschool is no coincidence, as Durkin was a producer on that film, and Campos is credited as producer on this one; together, they are proving to be a formidable filmmaking team, and certainly one to watch in the coming years.

The film begins as Martha runs away from a sort of “back to nature” cult somewhere in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. She is followed and confronted in a diner by one of the principle cult members, Watts (Brady Corbet), who is menacing but ultimately leaves her to her own devices. Martha calls her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and brings her back to stay with she and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), in their posh lake house. As she struggles to readjust to normal society, Martha drifts in and out of memories in a strange, dreamlike state that is carefully emulated by the filmmaking technique. At one point, she asks Lucy if she has ever had trouble distinguishing a dream from a memory; it is a telling moment that hints at the possibility that some of the flashbacks we see are partially or even wholly imagined.

The subject of these flashbacks is the cult experience itself, in which clothing is optional but strict faithfulness to the leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), is not. Patrick remains a mysterious figure throughout, though we see enough to know that he is a creepy and dangerous man, but also possesses the strange sort of charisma that allows him to manipulate weak-minded and vulnerable people like Martha into following him. Much of this is due to Hawkes’s stellar performance, which very nearly equals his outstanding turn in last year’s Winter’s Bone; here he channels his inner Charles Manson, and even when he smiles, which is often, there is a highly unsettling intensity in his eyes, which never waver once their target is chosen. “Marcy May” is the name he gives Martha while she is with the cult, a subtle and seemingly endearing way of stripping her identity and making her even more vulnerable. As for the “Marlene” of the title, well, it’s best if you find that part out for yourself.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a wonderfully disquieting and haunting film, disturbing as much for what it doesn't show us as for what it does. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that more successfully captured the inner workings of a “voluntary” cult experience; the subtle indoctrination, the strange rituals, the methodical breaking of individual wills. Even Stanley Nelson’s very good documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), simply by the limitation of being an actual documentary, could only delve so deeply, with archival footage and interviews with survivors filmed after the fact. The closest antecedent in recent memory is, once again, my beloved Dogtooth, which I still consider to be last year’s very best film, but even that had a more satirical, surreal style to it, while Martha Marcy May Marlene feels uncomfortably real at all times.

The interesting thing to consider, though, is just how real it all is, or isn’t. As mentioned above, there is a very subtle hint that perhaps Martha’s damaged mind is misremembering or fabricating some of her past experiences. She tells Lucy, who knows nothing of the cult from which Martha is hiding, that she has merely left a boyfriend with whom things didn’t work out. All we the audience ever see in distinct, objective reality (as opposed to Martha’s flashbacks) of the cult is Watts chasing her through the woods, followed by that strange, terse confrontation in the diner. Is Watts the boyfriend of whom she speaks to Lucy, or is that at least how Martha saw him at first? We see, in her flashbacks, him leading new female recruits into the fold, which is probably how Martha came to be there as well. The question is, how much of Martha’s disjointed memories actually occurred in that slippery space of objective reality? To its credit (and the consternation of some of the rest of the audience at the screening I attended when the film’s brilliantly ambiguous ending comes), the film is less interested in providing answers than it is in leaving its fascinating questions lingering in the mind of its audience long after it cuts to black.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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