Martha Marcy May Marlene
Indie films continue their foothold on American cinema with the fascinating dramatic thriller "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
Starring the "other Olsen sister," Elizabeth Olsen, in a star-making performance, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a study of what happens to a girl in the weeks following her escape from a cult in upstate New York.
Martha (Olsen) is a pretty regular girl whose friend Zoe (Louisa Krause) takes her to a farmhouse in a remote section of the Catskills. There she meets Patrick (John Hawkes), the much-revered leader of a "family" that lives and works together in a sort of hippie-commune utopia. Everyone "has their role" and finds "their place" and it all seems lovely... until you start to witness the underbelly of it all.
Women are there to serve the men--in fact, they can’t eat until the men are finished. Patrick deflowers all the girls entering the family, and, little by little, the family turns to violence.
The film opens with Martha escaping the commune and calling her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson)--who is staying at her Connecticut summer cottage with husband Ted (Hugh Dancy)--to pick her up. As Martha tries to assimilate back into the real world, her odd behavior has her sister on edge. She skinny-dips in a family friendly lake, crawls into bed next to her sister who is in the middle of a vigorous lovemaking session with Ted, and doesn’t understand why she is expected to eventually get a job.
Cutting back and forth between the present and the past, we slowly see the tenuous hold Martha has on her sanity just as we realize how crazy her commune family was. While they might seem all hippie-dippy at first, when violence begins to occur without remorse, you realize she might actually be in danger. Or perhaps... everything is all in her head?
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a film whose low budget actually enhances the images on the screen. There is a coldness and distance to the feel of it that nicely illustrates the losses Martha has suffered. Olsen is a revelation here, especially considering this is one of her first starring roles (the other is a low budget horror film called "Silent House"). Her face draws you in to her confusion, innocence, pain, and preternatural ability to understand what is happening to her while at the same time allowing it.
Sarah Paulson is also quite good as the confused sister who keeps reacting to her sister, yet never asks her what actually went on until it is far too late. She is the type that wants to believe the lies her sister tells, because dealing with the reality of the situation is too far beyond what she can handle.
This is one of the more interesting aspects of "Martha Marcy May Marlene." We see how seductive it can be to be embraced by a group that seems all-accepting and all-loving. Knowing it’s a cult, we can sit back and judge the lessons they teach, which sound reasonable, but we know they are nutty. Yet, back with Martha’s sister, we watch how Lucy and Ted put their own expectations and lessons onto Martha with equal determination. Who’s to say which way of living is better? And when Lucy and Ted realize they can’t take care of Martha, is she really better off with them? Or was there something to the cult after all?
Clearly, the commune was bad, but you have to wonder how often we are exploited and coerced by the people that are close to us--how they use their own powers of manipulation to get a particular result out of us. In essence, we are all victims of other’s expectations. And in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" we have a woman who at first seems to have it all together, but is eventually pulled from one extreme to another. And in experiencing that, her psyche is ripped apart until she isn’t quite sure what is real anymore, nor who can be trusted.
While the end of the film will divide audiences, expect Oscar nominations for Olsen and screenwriter (and director) Sean Durkin. This is a thought-provoking and compelling film that doesn’t give easy answers, but grabs you by the gut and doesn’t let go until the final frame.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha :: Elizabeth Olsen
Lucy :: Sarah Paulson
Patrick :: John Hawkes
Ted :: Hugh Dancy
Watts :: Brady Corbet
Max :: Christopher Abbott
Katie :: Maria Dizzia
Sarah :: Julia Garner
Zoe :: Louisa Krause
Screenwriter, Sean Durkin; Producer, Josh Mond; Producer, ónio Campos; Producer, Chris Maybach; Producer, Patrick Cunningham; Executive Producer, Ted Hope; Executive Producer, Matt Palmieri; Executive Producer, Saemi Kim; Executive Producer, Saerom Kim; Executive Producer, Alexander Schepsman; Original Music, Daniel Bensi; Original Music, Saunder Jurriaans; Cinematographer, Jody Lipes; Film Editor, Zachary Stuart-Pontier; Casting, Randi Glass; Casting, Susan Shopmaker; Production Design, Chad Keith; Art Director, Jonathan Guggenheim; Costume Designer, David Tabbert.