In first time director Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman in her early twenties joins a commune in a wooded area in upstate New York and endures psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick is a Charles Manson look-alike, who calls Martha “Marcy May” (all women must use the name “Marlene” when answering the phone). Nothing is said about the reason the commune exists or what its philosophy may be, other than Patrick’s misinterpretation of the Buddhist word “Nirvana”, and his remark that death is but a continuation, not an end. We are not told the circumstances that led Martha to join the group, but we do know that her parents are deceased, and that her relationship with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) has been strained.
In the commune, women’s role is subservient. They work in the garden and prepare the food but are allowed to eat only after the men are finished. They have no beds but sleep on mattresses on the floor in the same room. Their initiation is to be given drugs and brought to Patrick’s room for sex. Apparently, the house has many babies but it is unclear who takes care of them. Although it is possible, even probable, that fringe groups such as these do exist, and that the director may have personal knowledge of them, the members of the commune, as depicted in the film, seem little more than dehumanized caricatures of how some think “free-love hippies,”should look and act.
Without explanation, Martha suddenly leaves the commune and escapes into the surrounding woods, reaching town, though followed by Patrick’s assistant Watts (Brady Corbet). Strangely, she goes to a restaurant in open view and, even more puzzling, Watts makes no attempt to restrain her and bring her back to the commune, odd behavior for a cult that doesn’t hesitate to resort to murder. Somehow, Martha finds the inner resources to call her sister who brings her to their upscale lake house where she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) live. It is clear almost immediately that Martha is having trouble reconnecting with society, but she is apparently too traumatized to communicate with Lucy or Ted about her present emotions, recent past, or plans for the future.
The film continues on parallel tracks, flashing back to scenes from the commune and her life with her sister. The reason she left the commune becomes clearer when a flashback depicts a home invasion in which an innocent man is murdered. Martha’s behavior at Lucy’s home is unconventional, to say the least. She swims in the nude and inappropriately climbs into bed with Lucy and Ted when they are making love. She fears that she is being tracked down by cult members, but it is not clear whether this is real or imagined. Martha’s trajectory continues downward, but no one seems to be able to get a handle on the situation.
There is no intervention by the family when it is clearly required, no growth or adjustment on Martha’s part, and not a single moment of sunlight lightening the film’s dark mood. There is also no evidence that her sister or her husband have the empathy to create a space safe enough for her to communicate. In a home seemingly shut off from the outside world with no television or Internet to be seen, and no thought of contacting a counselor or psychologist, all Lucy and Ted can do is to shout repeatedly, “What’s wrong with you?” “There’s something wrong with her,” until it becomes risible. Ultimately, Ted and Lucy decide to act but it may be too late. In an ambiguous ending, Martha’s fate is left open for the viewer to interpret.Although the performances by Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes are outstanding, character development is not one of the film’s strong points. Though it is billed as a psychological character study, Durkin does not provide enough insight into Martha’s character, philosophy, or motives for us to identify with or care about what her fate may be. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller that is beautifully performed and, at times, gripping, but ultimately does not seem to have much point other than to tell us that destructive cults are …well…destructive, that they mess with your mind, and that failure to talk about them afterwards can mess up your head even worse.
©2011 Howard Schumann
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