Four M’s, Three Names, Two Stories and One Breakthrough Performance.
Rare is it that we are presented a film that delivers both a great breakthrough performance and strong direction from a first-time director. Martha Marcy May Marlene is that rarity.
The film revolves around a young woman, “Martha,” who has survived a cult. The cult lifestyle isn’t vilified or embraced by writer-director Sean Durkin; instead he paints a portrait that is non-judgmental to the practice. At no point is the word “cult” ever spoken, despite evidence to the contrary. With understated emotion and framing of scenes reminiscent of the likes of Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) and Terrence Malick, Durkin presents a state of disillusionment. His film involves two stories about one character. We have the present situation with Martha post-cult, and her recent past with the cult where she is bequeathed the name “Marcy May” by its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). “Marlene” is the name used to screen calls at the cult domicile.
The seamless transitions from present to past and past to present may test audiences’ patience, but it allows for a better understanding of Martha’s situation, even if the people around her can’t place the problem. It is an emotionally taxing film with an unresolved ending (most will hate it), highlighted by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister to those Full House twins.
As the film opens we see a scene that could have been second-unit material from the set of The Tree of Life: a cottage home with peeling white paint; clotheslines with white linens; a little boy playing with no shoes on. It’s quiet. Peaceful. Unassuming. Martha came to the farmhouse as a lost youth, fleeing a broken home in search of herself. At this home in the Catskills she is accepted and loved by those currently residing, men and women she would come to call “brother” and “sister.” So enamored of the group and the life she even comes to accept her sexual initiation from Patrick as part of the purity cleansing. As time passes her beliefs are swayed when she bares witness to activities and incidents she finds disagreeable. Making her escape Martha’s taken in by her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). While she may have escaped the cult, her habits and morality after her indoctrination continue to persist in the civilized world.
At Lucy and Ted’s Connecticut lake house, the couple, at first, remains considerate of Martha’s situation. Good intentions become strained when Martha does inexplicable actions that aren’t “normal.” Ted is explicit showing his disinterest, either with a glass of wine, or with his tone of voice.
While the emphasis of Durkin’s story is his interweaving of Martha’s events with the cult and with her sister, also important is how divergent Martha and Lucy’s lives are from one another. Lucy is cold and emotionally vapid. She loves her litter sister, but the current living arrangement becomes testy. The fact that Lucy waits so long to get Martha professional help clearly illustrates that she views her as someone who has been gallivanting around the last two years, not someone who has been psychologically browbeaten by a charismatic father figure.
And what of the “charismatic father figure.” John Hawkes, who last year delivered a strong performance as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, gives an essential performance as Patrick. The manner in which he first earns her trust, then her love and finally her will is methodical and seductive. Considering Martha’s home life, she was that much more susceptible to his ways. Patrick is clear to let Marcy May know that she is his “favorite.” In one scene, after she is spiritually cleansed from behind, Patrick picks up a guitar and sings her a beautiful song. Part creepy, part endearing; Marcy May is first confused, later smiles.
Prior to Martha Marcy May Marlene Elizabeth Olsen had but a few screen credits to her name. Her work here is nothing short of revelatory. Much like Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough a few years ago in An Education, Olsen’s portrayal of a cult survivor is deep and vulnerable. Never do her actions appear forced. And there’s a great similarity to her life in the cult to her life with family. It is definitely one of the best performances of 2011; and the primary reason Fox Searchlight bought the film for distribution back in January during Sundance. They knew they had a buzzworthy movie with a performance worthy of awards attention.
Martha Marcy May Marlene has subject matter that isn’t the most comfortable, which seems to Fox Searchlight’s theme this year with the acquisition of NC-17 rated Shame. As for its abrupt ending, most will walk out dissatisfied. But I came to respect Durkin’s decision. It’s about Martha’s journey, going from a disillusioned youth trying to find her place in this world. Even now, days after seeing it, she’s still with me.
Writer/Director: Sean Durkin Notable Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!