by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin
CAST: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 90% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.
My feelings about Martha Marcy May Marlene are all over the map right now. It angered me, shocked me, mesmerized me, saddened me, and thrilled me, all at once. A despicable cult lies at the center of it, and having recently watched the second season of HBO’s The Vow, I noticed it shared many similarities with NXIVM, an even MORE despicable cult, which just angered me even more. The movie’s saving grace is Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Martha, who escapes the cult after the opening credits and tries her best to adapt into real life after being brainwashed for two years. But even with Martha as the star (and it’s a terrific performance from Olsen, by the way), Martha Marcy May Marlene dances recklessly on the verge of being a movie featuring people so abhorrent that I wanted to turn it off.
I’m glad I stuck with it, though, don’t get me wrong. It’s a powerful, provocative film that asks lots of questions, and had me wondering about myself. If my sister disappeared for two years, then wandered back into my life with no money and no home, then behaved erratically and sometimes dangerously around my friends and loved ones…how much of that could I take before I started making inquiries about psychiatric institutions?
Martha’s sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), does her dead level best to make Martha comfortable and keep the peace between Martha and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who does his best, but resents her for “invading” his 2-week vacation. Lucy knows Martha is hiding something, but she senses it’s unwise to try to drag it out of her. But every time the opportunity arises for Martha to give some insight, she either backs away or turns it into a verbal attack.
This was one of the things that infuriated me during the film. I even paused the movie and asked Penni about why it made me so mad, thinking I needed a woman’s point of view. Why, oh, WHY does this young woman, who has clearly been traumatized in some way, not implicate the people who mistreated her for so long? Clearly, I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m sure someone would be able to provide me with a concise answer that makes Martha’s behavior understandable. The movie, however, does not provide such an answer. Ultimately, that’s one of its strengths. If it had ended with a Psycho-style expository monologue that gave clear-cut reasons for everything Martha does, it would have felt anti-climactic.
Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult’s leader, is not movie-star handsome by any stretch of the imagination, but he possesses that innate, infuriating ability to say exactly the right things at the right time. One trick is to give all the women new names; he re-names Martha “Marcy May” the first time he meets her. As a result, every woman in the compound is devoted to Patrick. How devoted? Whenever a new female member is introduced to their “family”, one of the first things the older members do is feed her a shake with a sleeping pill blended into it. Then, when the new girl falls asleep, Patrick can come in and rape her while she sleeps. The word “disgusting” doesn’t begin to approach this tactic. But the fact that the women will talk with the new member after that first encounter, and convince the newbie that it’s all good, it’s all fine, we wouldn’t be here if it was bad, you’re sooo lucky…I mean, if I had popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen, I was so mad.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not just about the rage it instilled in me, though. It asks us to empathize with Martha, and it succeeds, even when she behaves unpredictably. One night, Martha crawls into Lucy’s bed…while Lucy’s having sex with Ted. Lucy and Ted are understandably freaked out, but Martha seems dazed by their anger. “Why would you do that, Martha?!” Her reply: “I couldn’t sleep.” At that point, I could clearly see both sides of the situation. Lucy and Ted had every right to be angry, but Martha simply didn’t know any better.
The flashbacks to Martha’s days with the cult start out fairly normal, but as the movie progresses, we finally start to see some of the other incidents that finally drove her to run away. One particularly ominous scene shows Martha and another girl having target practice with one of the other young men in the cult. Patrick shows up with a live cat in a sack and abruptly tells Martha to shoot the cat. When she refuses, he tells her to shoot the young man. The man starts to walk away, and Patrick, in a voice raised ever so slightly, tells him, “Don’t you walk away from me.” And he stops.
The cult members practice periodic home invasions to gather needed supplies, since the farm they’re working on isn’t fully functional yet, and you can only get so much money by selling blankets in town. They do their utmost to avoid contact with the residents, but sometimes, things just…don’t work out the way you want them to, you know?
Martha Marcy May Marlene qualifies as a great film because it simply presents the facts of the story and doesn’t editorialize, doesn’t preach. I can report that it’s a stunning character study/thriller, and I can tell you that the performance from Elizabeth Olsen is superb (her movie debut, by the way). I can say that the filmmaking strategy is on point – kudos to director Sean Durkin. And I congratulate it on eliciting the kind of emotional response from me that I’ve only felt once in my entire life. It may not be the same for you. But there you have it.