Sometimes a movie can hit you in the face even though nothing much happens. One such movie is Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s feature directorial debut. There is something very powerful and off-putting about it, something intangible, something very scary. It stays with you, while you really don’t want it to. It isn’t a pleasant experience, but totally engrossing at the same time. A beautiful and repulsive movie. A rare occurrence.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, or Marcy, or May Marlene. Martha is her real name, Marcy is the name she is given by the leader of the cult she joins and May Marlene is the name the women in the cult use when answering the phone. The leader of the cult is Patrick, played by John Hawkes, a very enigmatic and charismatic man who manages to win the hearts of the men and women around him. He is quiet and speaks with alarming certainty about what’s good for the community and what somebody has to sacrifice to stay there. He never forces anybody to stay, but they don’t dare leave either.
Durkin doesn’t concern himself with telling a complete story and this is what a lot of people are complaining about. Durkin doesn’t want to present the answers to the questions the movie poses. He doesn’t pretend to know what goes on inside Martha’s head. She has closed herself off to the world, so why should we or the director get unlimited access to her head? It appears that something transpired in the cult to make Martha leave and go to her sister’s house, who has created a fine life for herself. Out of love for her sister she opens her house to Martha, but Martha doesn’t know how to cope with life outside the cult where different rules defined life. This leads to conflicts that put everything at stake in the lives of both sisters.
It is truly heartbreaking to see a young woman like Martha be so broken. It shows how incredibly damaging an environment as created by Hawkes’ Patrick can be to a malleable mind. Martha came to him at an age where she was still seeking for a way in life. He takes advantage of this to shape her into a woman he can control. We see this process happening as gradually as it would in real life and it is only later when the same thing happens to another girl that we start to understand the gravity of the situation. What Patrick is doing is incredibly insidious and he should be punished for this. Even a small thing like changing somebody’s name like it is an afterthought can mess with somebody’s head tremendously.
All this is told in way that can be very disorienting to a viewer. Without any notice from the director we change between present day, when Martha is living with her sister, and the past when we see Martha living in the cult. Just like Martha we are never certain where we are at any given time, which puts us right where Durkin wants us. Martha is disoriented as well and keeps dwelling on the time she spent in the cult. There could even be longing to that seemingly more beautiful time there, in a place where the rules are clear and everything is provided. Martha’s choice to leave must have been sparked by something very intense, though we will never know this, because Martha won’t tell us.
Martha, Marcy, May Marlene is a stunning directorial debut with a lead role by Elizabeth Olsen that will stay with you a long time.