Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director : Sean Durkin
Screenplay : Sean Durkin
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), Sarah Paulson (Lucy), Hugh Dancy (Ted), John Hawkes (Patrick), Christopher Abbott (Max), Brady Corbet (Watts), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), Louisa Krause (Zoe)
Numerous tensions cut through writer/director Sean Durkin’s dark, economic feature debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, but the most unsettling is the distance between the various characters and their inability to connect in a meaningful way. All of the film’s characters are driven in one way or another by the fundamental human desire to be with others--whether by marriage, or blood, or simply by living with other like-minded souls--but that desire is constantly stymied and frustrated, leaving us with a sense of separation that is powerfully enhanced by Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’s frequently masterful use of the ’Scope widescreen frame. Even when characters share the same space, they feel apart.
The story follows a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she escapes from a rural, cultish commune in upstate New York and goes to live with her wealthy sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their expansive lake house in Connecticut. As the film is essentially divided between Martha’s time with Lucy and Ted and flashbacks of her two years living with the cult, we are encouraged to see parallels between the two seemingly at-odds modes of existence, although what conclusion we are supposed to draw is vague. The rhythm that Durkin develops in his storytelling relies heavily on Martha behaving inappropriately around her family (swimming naked, crawling into bed with Lucy and Ted while they are having sex, refusing to eat), which necessitates flashbacks to her cult experience to explain how her perspective has been warped.
The cult from which Martha escaped is run by a sinewy, 50-something-year-old musician named Patrick (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone), who dominates his small following with a warm, but stern demeanor that makes no grand claims and is all the more insidious for its quiet resolve. Although the cult is never made explicitly religious (there is no discussion of God, the afterlife, or anything not of the earth), it is distinctly patriarchal, with the men eating before the women, clearly gendered divisions of labor, and a sexual initiation rite that enforces Patrick’s position as alpha male while also ensuring continual female subservience. Patrick speaks in platitudes about communal living and sharing, although the cult is clearly designed to continually reinforce his power and dominance. He renames all of the members--hence Martha being known as Marcy May--a symbolic act that both strips them of their former identities and also makes them his (it is also telling that when the women answer the phone at the commune, they all answer it as “Marlene”). Thus, Martha’s escape is not just about personal freedom, but about reclaiming her identity--her very sense of self.
Thus, how to reclaim that lost identity--whether is it even possible, in fact--becomes the foundation of the story’s dramatic structure. Her attempts to acclimate herself to the “normal” world are hindered and haunted by her experiences with the cult, which have not only warped her perspective in ways both subtle and profound, but driven her away from interpersonal connection. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are when Martha slips into “Marcy May,” delivering uncharacteristically harsh lectures to Lucy and Ted about their materialism and way of life as if on autopilot. Her loss of identity makes it impossible for her to connect with Lucy, who tries desperately to dig beneath her sister’s cagey exterior to find out where she’s been for the past two years. Martha is reluctant to talk about what she has experienced; perhaps she is unable to, but either way it produces constant frustration as Lucy understandably begins losing patience, and hope for some kind of reconciliation fades.
There are a few missteps throughout the film, particularly one crucial flashback that involves the cult engaging in a brutal act of violence that makes narrative sense, but also feels forced and unnecessary. Patrick’s quiet, studied megalomania and his perversion and manipulation of desperate people needing a place to call home is far more unnerving than the more conventionally horrific home invasion and murder that become the final breaking point for Martha. Nevertheless, the film works very well, especially in terms of the lead performances. As Martha, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famed Olsen twins) is very nearly brilliant in the way she conveys constant internal turmoil and confusion, while Sarah Paulson treads the tricky line of playing the potentially insufferable yuppie sister in a way that is both understandable and sympathetic. We feel for her and her predicament as much as we do for Martha, which makes Martha Marcy May Marlene a fully rounded dramatic portrayal of people who need each other desperately, but who tragically cannot connect.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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