Martha Marcy May Marlene
By Jenna Brower
November 2, 2011
The majority of people who have heard of Martha Marcy May Marlene probably think of it as A) that movie with the other Olsen, or B) that movie with the other Olsen about cults. To be fair, a word like “cult” carries strong connotations. Ingrained images come to mind—Charles Manson and his cohorts at Spaulding Ranch, drugs, brainwashing and extremist religious factions. What is less thought of is the quietness, the subtlety and the very real psychological warfare behind them. The word “cult” is actually never mentioned in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it doesn’t take very long to figure out that’s exactly what the movie is portraying. And it’s a very real, disturbing portrayal.
The movie opens quiet and serene on a farm somewhere in upstate New York, but Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha (or Marcy May, as she is at the farm) is stealthily picking her way through sleeping females and then the woods to escape the farmhouse and its authoritarian leader, Patrick. Once in town she calls the only person she can, her sister Lucy (played by the very capable Sarah Paulson).
Lucy brings Martha back to the sprawling Connecticut lake house she shares with her very British, very uppity husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha takes in her surroundings and her sister’s lifestyle with barely concealed disdain and flippancy. The film then begins to unfold itself more, showing the uneasy relationship between the sisters as Martha slips further into her traumatic memories of the farm and Lucy’s fruitless attempts to help.
First-time director Sean Durkin keeps the opening’s sense of strange calm going throughout, but with an ever-increasing anxiety and strain brimming just beneath. He moves expertly between Martha’s present time with her sister and flashbacks to the farm in mostly seamless ways, like one dream melting into another.
Martha’s two ways of life are examined next to each other: At the farm, the women cook for the men and must wait for them to finish before they get to eat anything. At the lake house, Ted cooks alternate nights, and Martha automatically apologizes to Lucy for sneaking bites while they prepare meals. Martha goes swimming in the lake nude, as the farm “family” often did, and is genuinely perplexed by Lucy’s reaction to cover up because “it’s just not normal.” Everything Martha does is deemed “not normal” by Lucy and Ted, most sharply shown when she comes into the couple’s room and lies down on their bed as they are having sex. Later on we learn Martha’s been exposed to casual group sex and other abuses.
The group sex is shown; the film is rated R for good reason. Many scenes and moments are highly uncomfortable to watch. There’s language, plenty of nudity, and worst to witness is the ritualistic rape that the cult leader Patrick carries out with each girl who comes to the farm. We see it happen to Martha, but even more terrible is when she becomes part of the process, prepping the newest girl with a sedative drink and telling her it’s part of the “cleansing.” Patrick’s manipulations on his followers’ minds are sometimes harder to bear than the graphic stuff.
If you can stomach all that and keep watching, then it’s the acting in MMMM that is truly superb and lifts the film to a higher caliber. Elizabeth Olsen, of course, is the breakout star, with such a luminance and unearthly prettiness it’s hard to look away; even her fictional sister comments on how “irritating” it is. She plays Martha as someone who is both strong-willed and delicate, often childlike in her reactions, but other times she can be harsh—she’s gone through something truly terrible and impossible to understand. Lucy tries to figure out many times what happened to Martha, but only concludes that an abusive boyfriend is to blame.
The other charismatic presence in the film is that of John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), playing the cult leader, Patrick. He is older than any of the other men or women, gaunt and not handsome, but somehow he draws them in with his calm voice and uncanny, persuasive powers. His appeal is baffling at first, especially when we see how he controls everyone at the farm, but Hawkes plays it with such subtlety and quiet, fierce assurance that you can’t doubt his authority over the others. It is he who changes Martha’s name to Marcy May, as he does with all the women who enter the “family.”
Fascinatingly enough, when the men play music on their guitars around the farm, the only one whose music has words rather than just humming is Patrick’s. It’s as if he’s saying he’s the only one who can have creative authority as well. In one of the most poignant and eerie scenes of the movie, Patrick sings “Marcy’s Song” on the day after he carries out his ritualistic rape with Martha. The lines about her say, She’s just a picture / lives on my wall / She’s just a picture / that’s all. Martha is an object to mold, that’s all. She watches him as he sings, mesmerized, and we see in her eyes the moment that she truly falls under his spell.
However, even the great acting can’t make up for some holes in the story that need filling. MMMM is a dark and chilling look inside a cult, but it also never explains how the cult started, where Patrick came from, where the others come from or how they even heard about the farm. We get a little background on Martha about Lucy being her only family because their mother is dead, but no other motivation for a seemingly bright, strong-minded young woman to run away and join up with Manson & Co. is given. The cult itself doesn’t have a very strong reason for existence; they seem to believe in vague “love” and “family,” but there’s not a religious aspect or greater power scheme to give them purpose.
In the end Martha becomes more and more paranoid, thinking Patrick and the others are coming to find her, and Lucy no longer knows what to do with her sister. Her husband thinks Martha is insane, so their relationship is increasingly strained, too. The movie has a “come to your own conclusion” ending that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at worst. There is no resolution for this heartbreaking girl we have suffered with through the whole movie. With such a capable cast, the movie easily could have answered all these questions and filled the gaps, expanding the story into something much better than it is. MMMM showcases some nice acting and is a great vehicle for introducing director Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen, but otherwise it’s “just a picture, that’s all.”
Jenna Brower is one of many starving artists and writers living in Denton, Tx. and occasionally writes reviews for RELEVANT magazine. Feel free to mosey on over to her blog or Twitter.