Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tense story of a woman who, after fleeing a cult-like commune, shows increasing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as she attempts to reestablish her normal life and a relationship with her selfish sister and difficult brother-in-law. Based on the true story of a friend of writer/director Sean Durkin, the film is driven by two very strong performances and the use of both silence and background noise to allow the audience to feel the tension grow with the main character’s own mental troubles.
The film begins when Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) flees the commune where she has lived for two years and calls her sister to ask for help; the call is awkward and Martha nearly gives up, showing how far she had fallen into the clutches of the commune’s charismatic, depraved leader Patrick (John Hawkes). From there, we see parallel narratives, one tracking Martha’s first few days of freedom with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law ted (Hugh Dancy) who want to help her as long as it’s no real inconvenience to them, the other following her two years in the cult from her first day to the incident that triggered her decision to escape. Both narratives follow similar curves with an initial ascent followed by a long, gradual decline, a dichotomy where each storyline intensifies the other.
The commune’s true nature only becomes apparent through gradual glimpses through Martha’s memory – and it’s possible that Martha isn’t a reliable narrator, given what happens to her in the other narrative – that reveal the commune to us more or less as it was revealed to her. She’s taken in as a bit of a lost soul, charmed by Patrick, eventually drugged and raped by him (which is explained to her as a “special” event that begins the “cleansing”) as part of her initiation. Patrick exercises control over the commune’s members through very subtle psychological manipulation, although that turns darker as the story develops. Martha – whom Patrick has rechristened “Marcy May,” as he renames all of the members – drifts into the lifestyle of the commune, never questioning any of its practices because she’s pleased, or at least satisfied, to have something resembling a family.
That need for family is explained in part by Martha’s time with her sister and brother-in-law, both flawed themselves and particularly ill-equipped to deal with a woman who has just fled a cult but claims she simply left a boyfriend. Her problems in this timeline start out as mere distance, moodiness, and ignorance of some social customs, but degenerate into delusions and paranoia, and Lucy and Ted show very little compassion or even the ability to generate it – we go through more than 80% of the movie before Lucy finally confronts Martha directly with the question of what happened to her during her two years out of contact. Their parents gone, Lucy is Martha’s only family, but there’s little warmth between them and more obligation than outright love, which stands in the way of Martha’s recovery almost as much as her own unwillingness to discuss what happened does.
Olsen is superb in the film, her first screen role, particularly in the second half of the film when she’s required to show a broader range of emotions; in the first half, she’s emotionally vacant in both narratives, but gets to stretch out into two different faces of the same character as the narrative unfolds. But Hawkes dominates his half of the story by almost trying not to dominate it: There’s no showiness, no bravura, just small gestures, eye contact, a faint change in the tone of his voice to convey the power he has over his charges. Olsen’s growing fear is the primary driver of the tension in the commune storyline, but Hawkes’ magnetism manages to elevate it even when all we have is the threat of his entrance. He’s a monster despite never acting like one; she’s the victim but never acts victim-like, only showing it through a slow crescendo of confusion and fear.
Both leads will at least be in the running for Best Actor/Actress nominations, although those categories are incredibly competitive, and if nothing else I think Martha Marcy May Marlene – the reason for the fourth name is too good to spoil – will end up with a Best Original Screenplay nod. If you can find it and like a tense, psychological drama with the tension of a British thriller, it’s well worth seeing.
I’d like to discuss the meaning of the end of the film, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, you may want to skip ahead. This paragraph has no value other than providing a warning and a buffer.
And this is another buffer, in case you didn’t listen the first time. Spoilers ahead.
There are three ways to interpret the end of the film, two literal, one other metaphorical. Perhaps the man is from the cult and has come to capture, harm, or kill Martha, which is certainly what she’s fearing. Perhaps the man’s appearance is just a coincidence; he could even be a random stalker, but not from the cult. But I favor a third interpretation – that the man’s status is irrelevant; the point of the scene is that Martha isn’t free of the effects of her two years in the cult, and might never be free. She will assume any incident like this is about the cult, or she’ll even experience more delusions like the two she had at the house and will see someone from the cult where there’s no one. The idea that her ordeal isn’t over is paramount, which is why it’s unnecessary to show the viewer the outcome of the incident in the street.