Movies are often called a storytelling medium, and for good reason. Years of exposure to film have taught us to expect simple three act stories with a defined ending which ties up or at least gives some form of closure to what came before it. This expectation works against some films, though. Mood pieces and character studies that eschew obvious plotting and standard climactic endings are often cited as narrative failures by those who are not expecting them. However, for those who can see the narrative purpose and importance of languid, ambiguous filmmaking, films in this vein can offer a textured, intelligent, and immensely honest stories well worth seeing.
I feel I must preface my critique of this film with that little disclaimer as a means of inoculating myself against future criticism. There will be those that find Martha Marcy May Marlene disappointing because of the enigmatic and illusory nature of its story, the lack of finality, but in reality there is no way that this tale could have ended any other way.
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen twins, plays Martha, a twenty something woman just reentering the world after fleeing from a agrarian cult in upstate New York. Her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), takes her in to her vacation home, with the grudging acceptance of her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). All is not well with Martha, however, as life in the cult has left her ill-equip to exist in ‘normal’ society. While she fled the cult, the teachings and ideas of the cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), stay with her.
The issues are small at first – she goes skinny dipping in broad daylight in the full view of all of Lucy and Ted’s neighbors – but they begin to grow in oddity and severity. The more that Lucy and Ted discover about Martha’s social ineptitude, the more alienated and distraught Martha becomes. With this growing sense of alienation comes flashbacks to her life before being rescued by her sister. The usual tropes of a cinematic cult are all present and accounted for – free love, farming, damaged women looking for something new and meaningful. Patrick looks at Martha and decides her name should be Marcy May, and she willingly accepts. The elements of the story are well trod ground, but they are not the reason for the accolades this film has been gathering.
The real reason to see Martha Marcy May Marlene is for the character of Martha, who, as portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen, becomes a compelling enigma. We slowly grow to understand the depth and severity of the psychological scars inflicted on Martha, and with each revelation we come to understand that her life is no longer under her own power. Even outside of the cult, the influence of the words and actions of its leader and followers is powerful. Martha evolves from being strange and elusive to grating and threatening. Her growing lack of control and her rapidly fraying mental condition make her a volatile presence. There is a deep existential threat in Martha’s continued interactions with Lucy and Ted.
The narrative gains greater complexity from the means by which Martha enters her recollections and reveries. Words and actions trigger her memories, bleeding into one another, and the tenuous connection between the things that actually happened to her and the inferences and exaggerations of her imagination begins to wear thin. Fear and paranoia seize her, and the more we find out about her time in the cult the more we worry about all the things we still do not know. The time spent in the cult has left her fundamentally altered, and watching her struggle against that is a strange kind of thrill. Olsen really does embody the mania and eccentricities of her character effortlessly – she is an actor worth keeping an eye on.
The lomography-esque cinematography adds to this air of uncertainty and emotive memory. There is an airiness, an unfocused softness that brings into relief the subjectivity of Martha’s worldview and reality. Director Sean Durkin has a very keen sense of style and mood.
In spite of the power of this deeply felt, intricate tale of a person afflicted by the psychological scars of cult membership, there are some drawbacks. The film suffers predictably from the unfocused nature of its story, a product of its commitment to psychological reality. There is a certain amount of lag in the midsection, and Martha’s behavior is so effectively odd and dysfunctional that it would not be out of the realm of possibility that someone would actually find her character abrasive. That, in addition to the aforementioned ambiguity of the narrative, may turn off some people. For me, however, this was an interesting, well made and worthwhile film.