It is a film that might actually be better on the second viewing.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting psychological thriller from first time filmmaker Sean Durkin, about a young woman trying to recover from her years of being part of a cult. Escaping her past is nearly impossible for her to do as one cannot simply forget about the things she was put through. The film benefited from two exceptional performances from Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. It is a film that might actually be better on the second viewing.
The film opens with Marcy May sneaking out of the farm house where the people in the cult eat, sleep and work together. She tries to do so without waking up the others but she is unsuccessful. With the entire house now chasing after her she dashes across the road into the woods, there is able to hide from everyone. She escapes to a nearby town where she is able to call her sister for help.
Marcy May is not her real name, it is the name given to her by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Her real name is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who at first believed that the group was more like a family that aspired to be self-sufficient on the farm. It took her nearly two years before she realized that she was a part of a cult.
You can tell that Martha is having a tough time adjusting to regular society at her sister’s vacation home. She does not think to put on a bathing suit when going swimming. She puts her feet up on tables and bluntly asks her sister if it is true that married people do not have sex. The group really did a number on her mentally and physically making it hard for her to be normal again.
Martha Marcy May Marlene does a fantastic job using transitions to go between present times to flashbacks of her past. While staying at her sister’s she is often reminded of her haunted past. When going out for a swim in the lake we are seamlessly taken back to when she went swimming together with the cult members. That helps illustrate how Martha has a hard time distinguishing the past from the present. The fact that she did not really know where she was at nor for how long she was a part of the cult did not help her situation.
The biggest problem Martha has is her dependence of the people around her. This likely steamed from both of her parents dying thus she never really had proper parenting. She treated the cult like it was her family which is exactly what the cult wanted. It was incredibly easy for the cult to brainwash her into thinking what is right and wrong.
Elizabeth Olsen, sister to the famous Olsen twins, absolutely nails her first major role on the big screen. Her role demanded such a high level of emotion intensity that is normally reserved for only well-seasoned actresses. You may be able to debate other aspects of the film but her performance should be left out of any controversies.
Martha Marcy May Marlene reminded me of the last film I watched, Take Shelter, in that the building up of the suspense was the best asset. So much so that it makes the conclusion feel like it missed just a little bit. My favorite endings are ones that are ambiguous, like they both were. However, I felt like both films had opportunities to go a little further than they did.
Oddly enough, the comparisons between this and Take Shelter do not end there. In fact, the main characters in both are psychologically ill and are both extremely paranoid. The pair would make a great double feature, you could call it “Paranoia Plentiful”.
You would not ever assume while watching Martha Marcy May Marlene that both the director and lead actress were making their debuts, which is pretty impressive on both accounts. There is plenty of interpretation to be done as the director leaves enough unanswered questions to make you come up with your own conclusion.