Most anyone would agree that cults are dangerous and undesirable entities that have been responsible for some terrible episodes like the mass suicides, sexual slavery, and even killing sprees. However, it can become rather tricky to determine whether a group is functioning as a cult or as a legitimate organization. Is the Church of Scientology a cult? What about Mormonism? Some would even go so far as to say mainstream religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are basically just large scale cults that can cause social ills on a much grander scale. That’s one of the issues addressed in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which depicts a young woman who finds herself living on a farm which initially seems like a relatively harmless commune but which begins to seem much more sinister as its methods of operation are revealed to her and to the audience.
As the film opens the titular character, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), is at the end of her stay with the group she’s been living with for the last two years. She runs away from their compound and calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who hadn’t heard from Martha since she ran away and joined the group. Lucy picks Martha up and brings her to a lake house where she and her husband (Hugh Dancy) have been staying over the course of a short vacation. From here the film begins to show Martha’s difficult adjustment back into regular life while frequently cutting back to the compound, depicting how she was slowly socialized into some increasingly unsavory behavior by this group beginning when they decide to change her name from Martha to Marcy May… unless she’s answering the phone, in which case she calls herself Marlene.
At the center of all this is an excellent performance by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the famous Olsen twins), who has unique challenges during both the film’s flashbacks and during the scenes at Lucy’s lake house. During the flashbacks we see how she comes to be enraptured by the cult around her even as their behavior gets increasingly indefensible; we see how she could come to see these things as normal and if the performance hadn’t been as strong it would have been easy for the audience to dismiss her as a fool who should have known better. During the scenes at the lake house the audience builds even more empathy for her as she shows a child-like misunderstanding with the regular world, falling into old habits from her cult days occasionally, but not acting like a complete freak either most of the time. You get a sense that Martha is a rather wounded person, unsure how to leave her Marcy May identity behind.
There are other good performances to be found in the film, like John Hawkes’ portrayal of the deeply strange Patrick, a man who manipulates people to his advantage but who isn’t necessarily a cynical charlatan either. He seems to be an almost Manson-esque figure that seems to be just as enraptured by his own charisma as his followers are, he’s a monster but he probably doesn’t consciously realize he is. Hawkes isn’t quite as amazing here as he was in Winter’s Bone (where he was the clear standout), but he certainly has an excellent character that he brings to life admirably. I cannot necessarily say the same about Sarah Paulson or Hugh Dancy’s work as Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, though I hesitate to blame the actors for this entirely. The problem is that these characters both seem wildly insensitive toward Martha at times, often reacting to mildly deviant behavior by shouting things like “what’s wrong with you” or “that’s crazy.” Granted, neither of these characters are privy to the flashback sequences and likely haven’t built up the same empathy for Martha that the audience has, but there’s a certain point where any rational person would have been a little more sensitive towards someone who’s so obviously disturbed.
Martha Marcy May Marlene was directed by Sean Durkin and produced by Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, three filmmakers who have formed a collective of young filmmakers under a production company Borderline Films. If there’s anything that characterizes what the Borderline collective and differentiates them from other filmmakers of their generation it’s a certain sense of restraint. While many young filmmakers over the last decade or so have embraced MTV maximalism, Wes Anerson hipness, or Sundance sentimentality, these films from Borderline have seemed much slower, almost cold in nature. That’s not to say that they’re boring or even particularly “arty” (in the negative sense of that word), just more restrained. Sometimes this restraint can go a little too far as I think it does in the final moments of Martha Marcy May Marlene, which ends very abruptly. There are many virtues to this ending: it’s mysterious, somewhat shocking, and it will certainly elicit discussion and theorizing, but it robs the film of any closure or finality. Many will argue (perhaps rightly) that this is the point and that the film couldn’t have ended any other way, but I still can’t help but think I would have been more interested in the two or three scenes that may have followed this ending than I would have been by the odd jolt that this cut to black provided.
The previous feature length film released by Borderline Films was Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, a film with a similarly cold and ultra-modern tone, but also a film that seemed more concerned with making points than about exploring characters. Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a more fully realized film, one that will reach a (relatively) broader audience. With Fox Searchlight bringing the film bringing the film to major markets across the country, this may be the film that brings this exciting collective into the wider cinematic culture. That’s exciting, but this movie is certainly worth praising on its own merits. It certainly has it’s small flaws (the portrayal of Lucy, the unexplained absence of Martha’s parents, and the questionable ending), but it is a really well crafted and interesting work just the same that’s easy to recommend both to hardened cinephiles and to wide audiences.
***1/2 out of Four