Martha Marcy May Marlene may be one of the worst titles of any film in 2012, but it’s also the title of one of the year’s best so far
It’s a wonderfully disquieting and haunting film, disturbing as much for what it doesn’t show us as for what it does. First-time director Sean Durkin gives us the story in disjointed bits and pieces, moving seamlessly back and forth in time in a way that puts the viewer fully into the confused head-space of its protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, proving with this one performance that she’s by far the most talented of her sisters, who include the famous twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley)
Olsen stars as Martha, a twenty something young woman who falls into the orbit of a small cult and its charismatic and manipulative leader, Patrick (a stellar and chilling performance by the gifted John Hawkes). Tinted with shades of Charles Manson and David Koresh (but by no means a derivative character), Patrick obliterates his followers’ former identities and moulds them to his will so completely that they act without question or hesitation. Their set-up resembles a communal farm on the surface; behind the scenes it’s an exploitative and predatory place
‘Marcy May’ is the name given to Martha while she is with the cult, a subtle and seemingly endearing way of stripping her identity and making her even more vulnerable. As for the ‘Marlene’ of the title, well, it’s best if you find that part out for yourself
As the story opens, Martha escapes the ‘family’ and reunites with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), trading one domineering household for another. The two are self-absorbed, tightly wound, and thoroughly caught up in their own facile lives, completely incapable of reading between the lines and seeing that something is desperately wrong with Martha as she slides swiftly towards a breakdown
In flashback, we’re made privy to Martha’s induction into Patrick’s group, her experiences within it, and the events that drove her from it. All the while, we’re left to determine what drove her to it in the first place, whether or not her fears of never being able to escape it are founded, and to what her experiences have left her psychologically scarred
At first the two worlds of Martha seem similar. Both groups are captured in the midst of an idle laziness. Each spends their days on the fringe of nature, pretending to be happy while masking insecurities. As the narrative progresses (and Martha’s paranoia increases) the two worlds become less alike to the viewer as they morph into one in Martha’s mind. Is she running away from her past or toward it?
We begin to wonder just how real it all is, or isn’t. Martha tells Lucy, who knows nothing of the cult from which Martha is hiding, that she has merely left a boyfriend with whom things didn’t work out. All we the audience ever see in distinct, objective reality (as opposed to Martha’s flashbacks) of the cult is a follower, Watts (Brady Corbet), chasing her through the woods as she first escapes. Is Watts the boyfriend of whom she speaks to Lucy, or is that at least how Martha saw him at first? We see, in her flashbacks, him leading new female recruits into the fold, which is probably how Martha came to be there as well. The question is, how much of Martha’s disjointed memories actually occurred in that slippery space of objective reality?
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the kind of story that depends on its lead actress, and Olsen carries the film nicely. She displays an utterly believable wide-eyed and enigmatic vulnerability, and is so tuned-in to her role and gives such a nuanced and fearless performance that it’s difficult to believe this is her feature film debut. She carries herself like a seasoned pro. It’s also Durkin’s first feature as well, and he too impresses, directing with a sure hand from a tightly written and carefully plotted script
Olsen’s star-making performance aside, the supporting cast is similarly commendable. Hawkes, who has perfected backcountry brooding (see ‘Winter’s Bone’), is subtle in his psychological seduction. Paulson’s Lucy mimics the insecurities of Olsen’s Martha while hovering behind a collected front. Their tenuous relationship is the beating heart of the otherwise bleak film. Hugh Dancy gives the film’s weakest performance as Lucy’s successful husband Ted. Ted’s transformation from supportive brother-in-law to ostracized husband is abrupt and bizarre. In a film that’s success depends on its subtly, Dancy sticks out like a sore thumb
The movie also draws power from Zachary Stuart-Pontier ’s impeccable editing, with scenes of the past and present that seamlessly bleed together in a manner that often catches us off guard and clues us in to Martha’s delicate, teetering state of mind
More than anything else, Martha Marcy May Marlene heralds the birth of a new star. By the time it reaches a disturbingly ambiguous conclusion, we’ve been subjected a very deep, very unsettling dive into a broken soul