Let me start by saying if you are getting ready to sit down and watch this film, or if you’re preparing to head out to Redbox or load up some movies in your Netflix queue, you better fasten your seatbelt. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is not a film for the light of heart.
The film is an effortless ebb and flow between the two years a young woman has spent living in upstate New York on a farm within a cult and the two weeks she spends with her sister at a lake house she rents with her husband. Once the film starts, it doesn’t let up. It will unnerve you at every turn. Elizabeth Olsen (yes, she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) stars as Martha. Her performance is riveting, electric, terrifying. I couldn’t look away. Olsen is an actress to watch – fearless, multi-faceted and raw.
Martha, adrift and searching for her place in the world, has joined a group of people who make their way on a rural farm. She’s introduced to the group’s leader, Patrick. An enigmatic older adult who has “sacrificed” to be the person they all need him to be. Played by John Hawkes, Patrick, a scrawny little slip of a man, is at once terrifying and genuinely empathetic.
“You look like a Marcy May,” Patrick says.
“Marcy was my grandmother’s name,” Martha replies.
“Well, there you go–” Patrick smiles, standing to leave.
This is how we begin. We have no idea how Martha’s gotten there, although watching the short film “Mary Last Seen” provided with the extras on the film’s dvd will shed some backstory. We have no idea why she’s there. We only know that she must find the ideals shared by those on the farm, self-sufficiency, openness, oneness, to be attractive. As she washes dishes following the one meal a day the group is allowed to have, Martha is told by one of the many women on the farm not to worry about what her duties will be. It takes time to find your place in a new family.
The cult’s indoctrination of its female members includes being drugged and basically raped by its leader. The women call this a “special night” during which the cleansing begins. And even after she experiences it for herself, Martha later prepares a new female member for her “special night” with Patrick.
Add to this a string of home invasions, burglaries and a subsequent homicide by members of the cult and eventually Martha flees into the woods. A man pursues her, calling after her in the darkness. She makes it into town where we find her scarfing a hamburger at a local diner. Shortly thereafter, the man catches up to her and though he doesn’t force her to return to the farm with him, you feel he is about to grapple her by the arm or the neck and drag her back.
She manages to place a frantic distress call to her sister, Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson), who picks her up a few hours later. Back at the lake house she shares with her architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), you feel how badly she wants to know where her sister – absent these last two years – has been.
The relationship between the sisters, Martha and Lucy, is tenuous at best. Lucy, several years older than Martha, still battles with the guilt of leaving her sister to be raised by their aunt in the wake of their mother’s death. Lucy, affluent and snobbish, disgusts her sister who, after two years sleeping in a room shared by a dozen (or more) women doesn’t understand why the two of them need a house big enough for twenty. This aspect of the story is a little heavy-handed on the part of Durkin. The strife between the sisters is apparent without Martha explicitly calling Lucy and Ted out on their excesses and selfishness.
In the days, and weeks, that follow, Martha begins to free fall between the present and the past, never quite sure if what’s happening now is real. She swims nude in the lake to her sister’s chagrin. She sleeps on the floor. She can’t eat anything her sister puts in front of her – even $5 smoothies Lucy insists are “good for her”. Everything about Martha is just … off.
One night, when Martha curls up in bed with Lucy and Ted as they are in the midst of having sex, it becomes clear to Lucy her sister is far more damaged than she originally thought. And, following an outburst at a party thrown by her sister, Martha also kicks Ted down the stairs when she thinks he is Patrick who has found her at last.
The ambiguous ending of the film is one last area of contention, but no ending would have been satisfying enough for Martha’s end. She takes one final dip in the lake where she sees a man, who looks suspiciously like Patrick, watching her from the shore. She gladly evacuates the water. Then, we see Lucy and Ted trucking Martha off into the city where they intend to dump her into a care facility for the mentally ill. As the car pulls away, a faceless man runs in front of them before ducking into a car on the side of the road. He pulls behind them. He begins to follow closely behind.
This is where we leave Martha. This is where it ends.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a heady film by writer/director Sean Durkin. Its complexity weaves a nerve bending spell that at once disturbs and intriques viewers.
Explore more at the official website: Martha Marcy Mary Marlene
Official trailer: Martha Marcy Mary Marlene