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Martha Marcy May Marlene

October 29, 2011
Martha Marcy May Marlene

I’m wracking my brain trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a movie about someone escaping from a cult before.  Most of the time, cult members outside the leader are complete extras, and sometimes we see someone who has (mostly) recovered.  But in Martha Marcy May Marlene we watch a tormented young woman just at the cusp of breaking free, where it’s not at all clear she’ll make it.

The film opens around dawn on a cool grey morning in the Catskills.  Someone dashes outside an isolated farmhouse, across a road, and into the woods beyond.  Soon, other people spill out of the house in pursuit: Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) has run away.  Or instead I should say “Martha”; that’s the name her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), uses on the phone when she calls for help.  Lucy picks Martha up at a bus station and brings her back to the house in Connecticut Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), rent as an escape from New York City.

But Lucy and Ted have no idea what Martha has been through in the two years since they last heard from her.  We, at least, get to learn some of the story through flashbacks into Martha’s — Marcy May’s — life with a commune headed by Patrick (John Hawkes), if that’s his name at all.  One of his first actions is to further sever newcomers from their outside lives by renaming them.

After this, they’re slowly induced further and further into the life of their new family.  Each step is small — sharing your possessions and lowering your guard to foster strong relationships sound innocuous enough at first — but members are inexorably drawn deeper until they can barely function in the outside world.  Even after running away, Martha still quotes Patrick’s thoughts on “the right way to live” and his praise of her as “a teacher and a leader”.

And is being a three-hour drive away really enough to escape?  Even if the cult isn’t after her, can Lucy and Ted deal with the fractured person Martha has become?  Can Martha ever heal from these deep traumas?  And what, exactly, happened to trigger her flight?

All the buzz about Martha Marcy May Marlene centers around Olsen’s breakout performance.  The younger sister of the famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen may have had a head start by not sharing their childhood fame, as she already shows more talent than both her older sisters put together.  It also helps that she more resembles Vera Farmiga — or her younger sister, Taissa, who we saw in Higher Ground — than Mary-Kate and Ashley.  But appearance can only take an actress so far, and Olsen shoots far beyond that point.  Martha is a dense, multilayered character; we get a real sense of only seeing the tip of an ominous, hidden iceberg.

But just as much praise is owed to writer/director Sean Durkin.  His deftness is evident in the way he slips us back and forth into and out of Martha’s fractured memories of her life as Marcy May.  He knows exactly how much to show us and how much to keep hidden to build up our tension.  And while it feels like the cult is still present, in reflection im not sure there’s ever any conclusive evidence of that, even in the agonizing conclusion.  Everything may simply be inside Martha’s head, and Durkin expertly places us right in there with her without us even realizing it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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