Written and directed by Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a directionless psychological thriller that attempts to dig into the life of a young woman suffering aberrations after living with a cult. The film lacks detail, relying on mood and the performances to goad the audience into caring. There’s also the small business of flashbacks, with Durkin ever-shifting time and space to befuddling effect.
Part of this approach is innovative, of course. It pays to confuse when dealing with a confused character, but there are limits to how far one can push this wagon. The dearth of answers and any form of precision becomes awkward, especially when said wagon is hitched to the titular ball of muddle and detachment as played by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen twins).
Olsen is Martha, a young woman introduced when she’s sort of escaping from a cult in the Catskill Mountains. She calls up the only relative she knows, her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and promptly sinks into “normal” live again without regard for explanation or her sister’s clear concern. Lucy is living in a relatively nice riverside home in Connecticut with her husband (Hugh Dancy).
Naturally, Martha is still haunted by memories of the cult she’s just sort of escaped from. The cult’s leader (John Hawkes) is a cagey and ill-defined character. His pull over the female members of his tribe is never clarified, but he does get to bone anyone and everyone at his discretion. This includes Martha, who he’s rechristened Marcy May. Martha, try as she might, can’t shake her past.
The movie’s first mistake is setting things up with such detailed terms with regard to time. It’s revealed that Martha has been with the cult for two years. She was ostensibly enticed by an acquaintance of some sort and resolutely espoused whatever kind of folly the leader “preached,” all while seemingly still under the hold of being “normal.” That she accepts the cult’s way of life, whatever it is, so enthusiastically is odd.
Upon her “return” to society, Martha seems to have forgotten many social mores. This is baffling because it moves beyond mere distrust: she alternates between acting like a child, peeing herself and coiling up in her sister’s bed when she’s having sex with her husband, and an artless teenager, telling Lucy that she’ll be a crappy mommy. There’s no continuity in her behaviour; any potential validation is tossed off on the indistinct “cult” she’s been a part of for a whole two years.
Can a person change so much in that time period? I suppose so. But with Martha Marcy May Marlene, the audience is asked to buy it without question. This is reinforced by the performance of Olsen, a decent one but one that generally banks on either taking her clothes off or looking pouty and subdued.
The perspective, Martha’s fly-by-night narrative, is rendered almost entirely inadequate. That creates a barrier to actually connecting to the film on an emotional level. The audience is turned into mere spectators, given little to do beyond watch the slack camera and scope out the Abercrombie-inspired cult members as they romp around in various stages of orgy. Understanding Martha as a human isn’t part of the game, unfortunately.
Lucy and her husband don’t get to know Martha, either. The relationship between the three is overwrought, but the path between them is left largely uncharted in favour of scenes that advance the psychosis of the cult without advancing the point of the cult. What do they believe in? What is the charm of the leader? Why did Martha fall for this bunkum, complete with corrupt guitar music, in the first place?
Movies that leave more questions than answers are often effective in presenting obscurity, but Durkin’s flick doesn’t cut it. It drags where it should captivate, supplanting a spitefully abrupt ending for cheeky furtiveness and confusing nebulousness for mystery. As a result, Martha just doesn’t matter much as a film character and Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t matter much as a film.