Cults. There’s something inherently interesting and scary about them. You usually have a narcissist who is obsessed with power or control and wants followers, and manages to sucker (or force) those who are damaged or easily led into joining. Whether the ideology of the cult ends up being purely for polygamist reasons, a result of religious fervour, or to satisfy some sort of anarcho-destructive / self sacrifice craziness; they always appear to be outposts of the slightly insane.
Which leads us into Martha Marcy May Marlene, the highly acclaimed debut feature from writer / director Sean Durkin, about a girl who decides to flee from the cult she joined a couple of years prior. The film starts with the girl, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), contacting her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is quick to come to her aid and take her to the lakeside holiday home that she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are staying in. The story follows Martha as she recuperates and slowly re-adapts to the ‘real world’, whilst in flashback we see an abridged account of her life in the cult. She is named Marcy May by Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult leader if you will, with what appears to be his sons and a number of young women making up the other members. They are based in a farmhouse somewhere vaguely rural with a goal seemingly towards self-sufficiency, but they hold a dated view towards women (the men eat first for example) and everybody shares everything and everyone.
This is a film that shows the damaging effects experienced by someone suckered into such a situation. Martha, whilst staying with her sister, is constantly on edge. So many little things happen in the every day life here that are little reminders of what she escaped – she seems to be constantly haunted yet at the same time is struggling to pull away from the past, especially as issues with her sister slowly begin to flare up. Which family does she really feel part of? And the word ‘family’ is the big con that’s used to willingly reel girls into this life. Yes an essence of the familial may exist, but surely the subjugation and controlling sexual atmosphere they put up with is not worth this? Hawkes is very convincing as Patrick – he has a certain relaxed smoothness on the exterior, but underneath he exudes something more predatory and controlling that instantly makes you wary.
But this is where one of the key problems with Martha Marcy May Marlene lies, which unfortunately restrains it. There is no attempt to explain or rationalise why the girls so willingly choose to join this ‘family’. Yes it may be painted as rosy from the outside, but the girls who have already joined seem content with what they have and readily lead new girls into this life. Marcy May is complicit in this too. The psychology behind this is fascinating but it remains unexplored, with the filmmakers only giving the merest hint as to why Martha decided to join, which isn’t enough. Tackling the after effects rather than the cause seems the easier and less interesting route to take. The other key failing comes from the implied threat of Martha being tracked down by Patrick after she has fled. You can imagine this would lead to a life spent constantly looking over her shoulder, worried. We are given an additional reason for Martha to be fearful, but the film manages to fall flat in this area by offering the audience very little tension. It all feels a bit too loose and casual.
A lot of praise has been lavished on Olsen for her performance as Martha / Marcy May / Marlene (the latter name is explained in the film) and she does do a great job. She convincingly portrays a girl slowly being driven crazy by her past, which is effectively filled with a mixture of trepidation, fear and at times a wide eyed willingness and wonder. She balances this well. Sometimes she is dripping with a palpable sexuality and other times you just went to tell her it's all her own doing and to get a grip. It’s a nuanced performance. The acting is better than the direction it has to be said, which suffers from being overly languid, suffocating any real threat from the story. The ending is also mightily unsatisfying. It’s one thing to aim for ambiguity but it’s another thing to just seemingly end the film without
Yes that was intentional; it may seem like lazy writing but that's exactly what the ending felt like.
I thought Martha Marcy May Marlene was an interesting film with two great performances, but ultimately I left feeling underwhelmed. It took a few days to gather my thoughts, primarily because I really wanted to like it but I was struggling to see how it actually delivered. The problem was it didn’t totally deliver and there are other directions I think it should’ve explored. It’s a good film but I honestly don’t think it lives up to some of the rave reviews it’s been receiving.