The title of this film refers to the identity crisis suffered by a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who has recently escaped from a cult. The film switches back and forth between the past and present, as Martha (her real name) comes to live with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy and Martha have been somewhat estranged, for reasons never spelled out (much in this enigmatic film is left unstated), making their reunion especially awkward.
Through flashbacks that intrude in an unsettling way into the present, we see that the rural “community” led by a bearded, guitar playing hippie-survivialist-philosopher named Patrick (John Hawkes) is a lot more sinister than it first appears. Martha is having trouble adjusting to the almost painfully normal bourgeois lifestyle of Lucy and Ted. She strips naked to go swimming, and even jumps into the couple’s bed in the middle of the night as they are having sex.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a difficult film to summarize, as it’s a combination psychological thriller, character study and social commentary. Actually, it only hints at the latter, and this is where it fails to deliver the intellectual punch that the early scenes promise.
At first, the juxtapositioning of scenes involving the cult with those taking place in Lucy and Ted’s serene lake house seem to invite a comparison of the two diametrically opposing lifestyles. Martha criticizes the couple’s materialistic ways -the size of their home, their focus on money and career, etc. Yet the film never really goes anywhere with this comparison. Ted and Lucy never really show themselves as anything beyond a archetypically bland middle class couple.
The cult, meanwhile, quickly degenerates into another kind of stereotype. It’s hardly shocking that Patrick, with his charming yet intimidating personality, brainwashes his recruits into an ascetic, conforming way of life and “initiates” all of the young women sexually -this is, after all, what cult leaders do. Yet, he turns out to be even worse than your run-of-the-mill cult leader, as he leads his flock into grotesque actions reminiscent of the Manson cult.
From a sociological perspective, the film could even be seen as a critique of anything countercultural. Indeed, some conspiracy theorists imagine that Charles Manson was “created” to discredit the hippie movement. Not likely, but nevertheless, the way this film depicts a group of people who are attempting to live an alternative lifestyle, it makes even the most mundane middle class existence seem the epitome of sanity by comparison. Yet, I don’t think writer-director Sean Durkin was actually aiming for a Message with this film -which is, in a way, unfortunate, considering all of the interesting variables it introduces.
If I was slightly disappointed by Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s only because it promises to cover some truly original and profound territory, and then turns out to be little more than a thriller, albeit a subtle and very well acted one. Elizabeth Olsen is utterly convincing as a cult victim, with her affectless stare that’s occasionally interrupted by outbursts of rage. The other noteworthy performance is that of John Hawkes, who can’t be faulted if his role was written a little over-the-top. He was also outstanding in another impressive indie film, Winter’s Bone.
Martha Marcy May Marlene has been described as an investigation into the slippery nature of identity. In that way, it’s more of an existentialist than sociological tale. The vagueness that’s sometimes annoying (so many details about the past -such as anything that happened to Martha pre-cult- are left out) can be seen as part of the film’s overall theme. It’s not giving anything away to say that the ending is frustratingly ambiguous.
Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an extremely impressive debut for both writer-director Sean Durkin and for Elizabeth Olsen.