martha marcy may marlene – review (possible spoilers)
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that has already had significant chunks of word real estate devoted to it. And with good reason: its intriguing, ambiguous yet completely specific intertwining plots combine to create a decidedly confusing atmosphere, providing no easy answers as to what’s real and what’s imagined. That’s the kind of movie that makes for extensive debate. That’s the kind of plot cult movies are made of. It’s also the kind of plot that requires a complete lack of spoilers but is extremely difficult to discuss without them. Fun times for reviewers then.
The plot is deceptively simple: young woman, living with a huge family on a farm in the Catskills, steals away in the early dawn. Her sister, who hasn’t heard from her in years until the phone rings, brings her to her lakeside house, where it becomes apparent the young woman’s mind is more shattered by her experiences than anyone could imagine.
Elizabeth Olsen is, as well documented, astonishing in her portrayal of the young Martha, then Marcy May and sometimes Marlene. Her guilt in her own downfall, through choosing to reject the society chosen for her, is written all over her face. As the movie’s parallel plots begin to converge upon both Martha and audience, it’s Olsen who steers the ship, immersing herself completely in the role yet never descending into the kind of hysteria that many more experienced actresses fall prey to, and which would kill this movie.
John Hawkes is disturbingly seductive as commune leader Patrick. Father figure one moment, sadist the next, he is every woman’s nightmare realised. His power over his community is awe-inspiring not because of its effects, but because of its methods. When he serenades Marcy May, immediately after she has endured a brutal violation at his hands, it only serves to reinforce the group belief that horrific trauma “begins the cleansing”, as a precursor to the complete destruction of personal boundaries. It’s never explained which, if any, equivalent ritual the male members have to endure. In Hawkes’ hands it’s possible to believe that Patrick began just like one of the boys he takes in, with the environment’s relative isolation giving unchallenged flight to the monster within.
The most intriguing performances are that of Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy as Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. The classic ‘young profs’, their success as a couple is qualified only by material possessions and devoid of love. Lucy’s apparent familial concern is obligatory, not instinctive; in comparison to Martha’s all too raw emotional broadcast, Paulson’s clinical, saying-but-never-asking portrayal betrays Lucy’s complete disconnection from any genuine emotion. When Martha points out their lakeside house is too big for just two people, not long after Lucy confirms the couple are trying for a baby, the bone itself is cut off. Dancy’s Ted, meanwhile, constantly walks the tightrope between kind man and uptight prig, with a hint of sexual intrigue at Martha’s uber-liberated state creating conflict within. His increasing disdain for Martha’s reconstructed emotional state mirrors Patrick’s destruction of it, and speaks volumes about the men in Martha’s life inflicting themselves upon her.
The movie certainly isn’t perfect. It is a character study first and foremost, and so while the four central performances are all note-perfect, the characters outside of the core four can occasionally feel like they are there for colour only. Even given Lucy’s evident disdain for going off-plan, she never actually asks the question Martha needs her to ask, when it would surely be the first question any sister would ask an obviously traumatised sibling. The commune certainly let Martha go very easily for a group who turn out to be an extremely not-nice crew, in a manner that itself slightly stretches belief. And while this purports to be a movie about the specific feeling of being in a cult, it’s just a bit too vague on the group mechanics to answer questions – not least because there is a particularly glaring inconsistency in relation to how members wind up there in the first place.
All that said, Martha Marcy May Marlene is still a pretty darn good debut for both director Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s well worth watching, if for no other reason than it’ll make you wonder just what exactly does lurk in that huge and lonely house in the mountains.