You could call this impressive and haunting American debut film ‘The Mystery of Martha Marcy May Marlene’: our questions begin with its tongue-twisting title and continue way beyond the credits.
Writer-director Sean Durkin gives us Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a startled, baby-faced young woman who runs away from a superficially boho and idyllic but really rather nasty cult in upstate New York. Once escaped, Martha moves in with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), in their spotless lakeside home somewhere equally bucolic at first glance. Past, present and future are as uncertain as each other as Durkin leads us back and forth between Martha’s time with the sect and the purgatory of being away from them. Gradually, Martha becomes so engulfed by unease and paranoia that we’re not sure if anything we witness is entirely trustworthy.
It sounds eventful, but there’s a lazy, dreamy quality to ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’, a reflection of Martha’s passive, troubled state bolstered by the film’s calm, pastoral and grainy look. There’s something of the truth-telling fool to Martha as she offers glassy-eyed comments on her sister’s lifestyle and home. ‘Is it true married people don’t fuck?’ she asks her prissy hosts without malice. The questions continue: ‘Why’s the house so big?’ And when Lucy over-reacts to her swimming naked in an empty lake – ‘What’s wrong with you? Jesus!’ – we wonder, as Martha does, what’s the big deal with shedding your clothes for a dip? By the time Martha shrieks at her sister, ‘You’re going to be a terrible mother!’, we’re not sure if she’s a bitch or a soothsayer.
None of which distracts from the creepiness of life at the sect. This self-sufficient, rural cult is run by Patrick (John Hawkes), a passive-aggressive hippy Pied Piper with nods to Charles Manson and David Koresh, right down to the hair. But Durkin restrains from fetishing or dwelling too long on the cult’s rituals and routines, so as not to wander too far from his main interest: Martha. It’s here she adopts the name Marcy May, given to her by Patrick, who also insists that anyone picking up the phone calls themselves Marlene. Clearly Martha achieves a brief sort of bliss from basking in the glow of Patrick’s attention – but it’s at the expense of her virginity, taken from her during a drugged sleep.
What’s most interesting about Durkin’s perspective on this story is the suggestion that you don’t need to be living under the control of a cult to be psychologically unfree. Martha leaves one cut-off social unit for another, and life with her sister often feels just as restrictive and strange. We know little of Martha’s family background, but there are hints of problems and we assume a vulnerability and lack of rootedness which attracted her to the sect, and vice versa, in the first place. Once we’ve got over the frustration of this promising film’s abrupt ending, we’re left with the feeling that you can escape a cult but you can’t escape yourself. Martha’s prisons of the mind might be harder to leave behind than we thought.