The exploration of cult dynamics and their psychological effects on its members is not really anything new for film. It’s been examined, and re-examined a million times. Even so, there’s something fresh and exciting about T. Sean Durkin’s film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s a seemly ridiculous title that no one can seem to get right. But it immediately becomes evident how apt it is for a film about a cult-like community where women slowly distort and lose their identities.
The titular character is played by Elizabeth Olsen, older sister to the famous twins. She gives a great performance and it’s admirable that this is her first feature film. She chose not to ride on the coattails of her sisters that, I’m sure, could have easily gotten her roles. For the sake of clarity, I’ll simply call her Martha, although the names she uses changes throughout the film depending on where she’s at.
To call the film a psychological thriller would be both deceptive and accurate. It’s not a thriller in the action sense, but there is also a sense of dread that never leaves. Even in the more dramatic scenes (that mostly happen through understated flashback sequences), the film keeps a kind of muted sense of paranoia around to put a strange twist on what you’re seeing. The film begins with Martha running away early one morning from a communal farm, where she’s sleeping on the floor with several other women. She hysterically phones her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), with whom she hasn’t spoken in several years. Lucy is relieved to have Martha back, but is concerned by her strange behavior.
At this point, not much is known about where Martha was or why seems incapable of acting according to most social norms. But slowly, Durkin reveals the back story. He does so without sensationalism, or melodrama, he slowly lets what happens unfold. And it’s actually kind of terrifying. Lucy and her husband (played by Hugh Dancy) are seemingly quite wealthy. Martha’s appearance has interrupted their two week vacation at a palatial, lake-side home in Connecticut. The food, the location, the expensive clothes and boats are directly juxtaposed with the scenes portraying her days on the farm. Which, needless to say, contrast drastically. It’s a lovely, and jarring comparison that helps the audience feel a bit of the confusion Martha is experiencing.
Martha refuses to tell Lucy and her husband much about her last two years. In her words, she met a man. That man lied to her. So she left. There were lies. There was ritualistic rape in the name of religion. And there was worse, but it’s best not to know too much before seeing Martha. Durkin’s direction is strong and assured. He did not feel the need to rush anything in the name of mass of appeal. The film moves at a slower (but not slow) pace, letting the audience focus more on what’s happening emotionally and intellectually in these characters. This is much more appealing than a director who could have felt the need to explain everything, leaving nothing to be determined. Martha is vaguely reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s Last Days, but with a bit more coherence, and not so clinical in its relationship with its characters.