People suck. That’s the message I got from Martha Marcy May Marlene. But was it a worthwhile message? The film introduces us to Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who has run away from a cult run by Patrick (John Hawkes), where she was known as Marcy May for the two years she lived there. She’s picked up by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). However, Martha’s slow-growing paranoia and mental lapses are too much to handle for the pair, and we discover what exactly happened during those two years.
What people said about Take Shelter is what I felt about this film. They said it was a slow-burn, but the thriller aspect kept them invested. But as I stated in my Take Shelter review, I thought it was a really good movie, but I didn’t feel that level of suspense. Here, I did. And I think a lot of it had to do with the editing. The transitions between the past and the present was so seamless, I eventually started feeling as confused and disoriented as Martha–not sure if I was in the now or in a memory. I really appreciate it when the aesthetic of a film can put you into a character’s mindset. In essence, it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim. It’s not nearly as kinetic and chaotic, but in terms of how the film uses the editing as an extension of the characters is what I mean.
Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes were both outstanding in this film, and I’m now joining the snub cries of others–at least for John Hawkes. I’m not saying one was better than the other, but with Hawkes’ rise lately and his previous nomination, you’d think he’d be in. And this is a character/performance that tends to do well. But I’m getting off track here. The point is, both were great to watch, but for different reasons. With Olsen, I was never quite sure what she was going to do next. Hawkes was rather menacing in that creepy cult leader kind of way. You could sense that, even if he didn’t do something himself, he had the power to make “things” happen.
If I had a negative, it would be that I would have liked to see her paranoia start a little sooner, which might have made a bigger impact on the ending. There’s the incident at the party, but that’s the only one I can even recall. It almost felt like it was an aspect they wanted to add on in a final rewrite of the script and just added a scene or two. I suppose there’s a couple scenes where her confusion between what’s real and what’s not could be part of it, but to me, that’s slightly different. I would have liked to see a little more paranoia.
And going back to my opening comment, there’s really not a single likable character in the movie. Of course everyone in the cult is crazy, and it’s hard to like cult members. Martha’s sister, Lucy, is so snobby and self-focused that she’s almost more unbearable than the cultists. Hugh Dancy is really the only logical one in the movie, but logic doesn’t necessarily stop you from being an ass–which he is. You feel sorry for Martha due to her predicament, but that’s about it. It’s not like she was kidnapped. Sure they had a strong influence over a fragile mind… that’s what a cult does. But still.
Overall, I thought it was a really good film. I was wondering the whole time when the “Marlene” was going to come into play, but when it did, it was pretty creepy, and made a prior scene make a lot more sense (which it was supposed to, so that’s not a dig). And I’m wondering, due to the fractured narrative, if this is one of those films you need to revisit to catch little clues here and there based on events you don’t find out until later. And I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. I think seeing it for John Hawkes alone would be worth it.