Written and directed by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy
For such fascinating subject matter there really aren’t very many good films made about cults. I know there have been countless TV movies about the Manson family, Jonestown and Waco but it is sadly rare to see films that treat the subject with any kind of psychological depth. Sean Durkin’s debut film Martha Marcy May Marlene is one such rarity.
Focussing very much NOT on the machinations of life in a cult, but instead on the devastating psychological residue after one girl’s daring escape from the commune, the film's insight into life in the commune comes in flashes. These short but very telling snippets merely highlight what she went through and some of the ploys used to keep the members loyal. Durkin chooses not to dwell on life in the cult which serves the overall arc nicely but leaves the audience gagging to spend more time inside the commune and in the presence of their absolutely terrifying leader Patrick, a typically charismatic leader dripping with menace.
Martha, the young escapee is taken in by her older sister. Their relationship is complicated and it is clear that this is not the warmest environment for Martha as she tries to rejoin society. Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) lives in a large lake house; very modern and very cold, with her new husband Ted, a short-tempered workaholic. It is the polar opposite of beat-up, energetic but strangely inviting house on the commune. As Lucy genuinely tries to understand her sister and sympathise with her there is always a sense that she is weary of Martha’s negative presence in her otherwise pleasant life. There are tender moments between the two and some affection but the sisters just cannot connect.
The two worlds the film inhabits, the lake house and the commune, seem equally oppressive to Martha and it is with great sadness that the audience slowly accepts that maybe this girl won’t ever feel part of any society.
Much of the film focuses on Martha’s paranoia after escaping the cult. She fears Patrick and she knows he will go to any lengths to get her back. The line is often blurred between what is happening in reality and what Martha’s mind is creating out of fear. For some this may prove tiresome and that’s understandable but there’s something to be admired in Durkin’s ability to stay true to his vision for the film and not to fall into any soap opera theatrics, though the film is not without its nerve-shredding scenes.
Martha, a complex, not always likeable character, is played with remarkable power and haunting sympathy by Elizabeth Olsen, sister to the not even remotely haunting Olsen Twins. Cast just two weeks before the shoot, Elizabeth’s wholesome beauty and melancholy eyes are sure to remain niggling at you for a long time after the films ends. The same can be said for John Hawkes as Patrick, whose sharp sneer and intelligent eyes will surely stay in your nightmares for a long time after. Like his Oscar-nominated turn as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, Hawkes is both brimming with menace and oozing unconventional charm. The hold he has over Martha (or Marcy May, as he chooses to name her) and her naïve acceptance of his love packs a powerful punch mainly due to the wealth of subtle energy behind both actors’ eyes. Despite the depth of Patrick’s cruelty and devastating emotional manipulation there’s something in the performance that makes him strangely alluring; just seductive enough to ensure the situation is believable. Two extremely strong characters and equally strong performances carry the film into much more interesting territory.
Martha Marcy May Marlene may not be a perfect film and many will be frustrated by its lack of conclusions of any sort but it is certainly unique and it’s dozy, dreamy air makes for haunting cinema.
- Charlene Lydon