The Trouble with ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) chronicles a young woman’s escape from a cult and her subsequent difficult transition back into society. Every name in the title refers to the same young woman (played by Elizabeth Olsen), indicating the difficulty she has establishing her own identity; outside of the cult she’s known as Martha, within the cult she’s Marcy May, and (along with all the other women) when she answers the phone at the cult’s communal residence she’s Marlene. With such an intriguing premise, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the indie film received 34 award nominations and 12 wins, including Sundance Film Festival’s Best Directing (Dramatic) award for writer and director Sean Durkin.

One of the most striking aspects of Martha Marcy May Marlene is the blending of past and present. Durkin smoothly transitions out of Martha’s new life with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) into her old life in the cult. At times, particularly at the beginning of the film, this intermingling creates confusion as to where we are on Martha’s timeline. But this confusion is perfect. It echoes the disorientation that Martha feels after leaving the cult. During those first few days with her sister, she often experiences flashbacks and believes they are happening presently. This is most apparent in the scene where Martha dreams about one of the last times the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) seduced her. When her brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) tries to wake her, she attacks him, forgetting where she is and mistaking him for Patrick.

Durkin also succeeds in what is essentially the “character” development of the cult. Initially, the cult to which Martha belongs appears relatively benign. We see a group of people living together communally, helping each other with everything, developing a self-sufficient farm, and frequently playing music together. In these respects, the cult seems nice. Hell, maybe even appealing. During these early scenes, we can perhaps understand why Martha, a person who has never really had a family or real companionship, feels drawn to this cult.

As the film progresses, the cult’s disturbing qualities begin to surface. Patrick drugs Martha and rapes her in an initiation ceremony all women of the cult go through, which is uniformly referred to as a woman’s “special night.” Afterwards, Martha confides in a fellow cult member that she’s still in pain and we can infer that prior to this evening, Martha had been a virgin.

Patrick’s resemblance to Charles Manson also becomes increasingly apparent. Like Manson, Patrick’s followers refer to themselves as a family. There seems to be an implicit hatred of the rich or well-to-do because they break into people’s homes and rob them as the Manson family notoriously did. Martha echoes this Manson-esque disdain for wealth through her criticism of her brother-in-law—she tells him his perspective of the world is wrong because he measures success by money and possessions. This is how Patrick, like Manson, taught his “family” to think. Yet, like Manson, he unapologetically steals from others (never mind that if possessions are evil, stealing to obtain them is an inherent contradiction; never mind that Martha’s and the cult members’ livelihood is contingent upon the success of the very people they condemn).

The cult’s deference to Manson becomes clearly evident during the film’s climax. During one break-in, the house’s resident catches them, and one of the cult members, Katie (Maria Dizzia), murders him. Not one person seems remorseful or even shocked when Katie stabs the man (with the exception of Martha).

The murder exemplifies how manipulative Patrick is and his determination to brainwash members of the cult. Upon discovering that Martha is distraught, Patrick accuses her of not trusting him, which makes her feel guilty. He then attempts to convince her that she need not be upset about the murder because death is love. By his logic, she fears death, but that fear is beautiful because it forces her to be present: “When you’re truly present that’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So death is pure love.”

The highlight of this film is the Olsen Twins’ little sister Elizabeth Olsen. She received critical acclamation and won awards for her debut performance—and rightly so. What’s remarkable about Olsen’s acting is her subtlety. She doesn’t overact, the way many novice film stars often seem to, but embodies her character naturally. The phone call she makes to her estranged sister following her escape from the cult exemplifies this. Her voice shakes just perfectly, the way a person’s realistically would when he or she is lost, disoriented, and experiencing the internal conflict that must result from the growing awareness that he or she is brainwashed. It would have been easy for Olsen to be excessively dramatic and cry hysterically, but she conveys the same emotion inherent in a hysterical cry with a slight quiver in her voice. Olsen displays such subtlety and naturalness of emotion throughout the film.

While Ms. Olsen’s acting, the fusion of past and present, and the cult development are all excellent, Durkin’s film contains glaring problems that prevent it from being impeccable. The trouble with Martha Marcy May Marlene is that the dialog is few and far between. While this sparse dialog in and of itself is not a problem (unless you are like me and prefer dialog-heavy films), it leads to other issues. Because it’s sparse, you expect the dialog that does exist to be poignant and exact. Unfortunately, the dialog is weak and redundant. One of the most frequently spoken lines throughout the film is Lucy’s constant exclamation, “What’s wrong with you!?” After a while, it begins to feel that Durkin simply experienced a failure of the imagination—not only did he have trouble imagining other things Lucy could say to Martha, he had trouble imagining a realistic conversation that would ensue when a woman realizes (as Lucy clearly does) that her beloved sister has experienced something traumatic.

The sparse dialog contributes to the film being incredibly slow-paced. Again, if you have the patience for sparse dialog and slow moving films, these things are not necessarily a problem. But, the slow pace elicits building anticipation. It makes you sit on the edge of your seat so you don’t miss when something extraordinary happens (because it feels it must to reward your patience). But nothing extraordinary does happen—with the exception of the murder, which is so brief and ancillary it hardly seems enough to warrant the eager anticipation that you feel for the movie’s duration (and the fact that a murder doesn’t seem like a fair payoff for our patience is a whole other problem with the film).

Additionally, the ending doesn’t feel like an ending at all. Just as it makes you expect a riveting climax, a slow-paced movie makes you that much more eager and expectant for a riveting resolution—or a resolution at all. But Martha Marcy May Marlene has no resolution. The final shot is of Martha in the back seat of her sister and brother-in-law’s car, as they’re taking her to a mental institution. An unidentified stranger runs in front of the car, which seems to have no impact greater than temporarily vexing Lucy and Ted. The stranger then gets in his own car and starts driving behind them. The unidentified man may be following them, but given that nothing in the scene suggests this is problematic, it feels inconsequential. Then, rather abruptly, the credits start rolling. Once again, this feels like a failure of Durkin’s imagination. I can hear his interior monolog—“Well, I’m not really sure what should happen next, so let’s just stop the movie here.” And again, considering how patiently I sat through the movie, I feel cheated.

Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a little disappointing, especially because it has such a promising premise and won numerous awards. Given the flaws, this certainly isn’t a film that I feel the need to own and watch repeatedly. However, the highlights of the film—the distortion of time, the Manson-esque cult, and Elizabeth Olsen’s performance—certainly make it worthwhile to watch at least once.

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