Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that shows you everything but explains very little. The film’s only exposition is in defining the lead character’s four names, and that too is provided in puzzle pieces only partially assembled. The film is deftly constructed with a specific beginning and an abrupt pinpoint ending with everything else dancing in between in non-linear fashion reflecting the neither-here-nor-there emotional state of Martha Marcy May Marlene. First time director Sean Durkin crafts a bleak, hypnotic tale of a young woman trying desperately to escape the clutches of a Manson Family like cult. Combined with Elizabeth Olsen’s impressive performance, the film’s script instantly engages the audience with broad strokes and a blank canvas with images scribbled upon is textured surface. The movie is tragic, morose, horrifying and engrossing. The film builds meticulously and steadily to a highly anticipated conclusion but suddenly stops short of delivering. Enjoying the film will depend on how one reacts to the very independent film style ending Martha Marcy May Marlene provides. For some it will be thoughtful, naturalistic and provoking, while for others it will be a ruse, a cop-out, feeling like a script that has no end. Either way, getting there is mesmerizing.
The story behind Martha Marcy May Marlene is a brief period of time in the lead character’s (Elizabeth Olsen) life after she runs away from the communal family she has called home for approximately two years. Shortly thereafter she is reunited with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). As she struggles to determine what is real, what is normal and how to behave in the world she’s return to, the world around her which has just reopened slowly begins to cave back in upon her. She’s fragile, broken and confused. Through flashbacks, the film slowly reveals the horrors she endured and the emotional manipulations she encountered. Her reactions and her behavior become more clearly understood as each vignette illustrates the world of Patrick’s (John Hawkes) cult lifestyle and the control he has over of all those who live under his roof. Her new existence, living with her her sister and brother-in-law, Max (Christopher Abbott), offers little comfort, compassion and understanding. Frequently unable to tell the difference between life and her memories, Martha continues to live in fear of Patrick and his family and even herself.
Martha Marcy May Marlene owes a lot to the magnetic performance of Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister to the famous Olsen twins. Her face is a broad canvas for the film to project upon. While we rarely get even the glimpse of a happy Martha, she is also rarely expressive in other emotions as well. The range isn’t the point, it’s what is happening just behind her eyes that is key. Those eyes convey a constant thoughtful gaze, examining her surroundings with every turn. Olsen’s Martha is given ample opportunity to scream, yell and cry, but even then it’s a comparatively reserved expression. Most of her feelings are wrapped up close as if a loosely guarded secret. Midway in the film, Her captor, Patrick, sings his own song to her describing her as “just a picture hanging on the wall.” If a picture was ever worth a thousand words, Martha Marcy May Marlene has that value and more in Elizabeth Olsen.
In the similarly styled film A Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes gave a performance that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His role in Martha Marcy May Marlene is equally enigmatic but far more diverse. He is inviting and frightening in every word and every moment. His compassion is a cold, distant hand. His embrace is a quite knife into the delicate psyche. Only when he’s at his most despicable is Franklin shown to be truly and wholly reprehensible. Elsewhere, his perversion is masked behind a veil of manipulation and words of false comfort. Hawkes gives the role a silent menace and a smile that carves at the strongest of defenses. It’s a powerful, restrained performance that chills long after the movie ends.
In a move that feels more like a proclamation of being an independent feature than an honest story construct, the conclusion is abrupt and decidedly grey. It leaves the character’s future in the imaginations of the viewer and spells out very little. It is an intentional and bold move on the film maker’s part and one that challenges how one digests a movie. Behind the cloak of indecision is a poignant observation about the character’s future and emotional state. Martha may have escaped the Franklin’s compound, but she may never be rid of his influence. Unfortunately it also builds to a confrontation, a confrontation that the audience is lead to expect and that the film fails to deliver. It’s part of the point of Martha Marcy May Marlene but it may be to its own detriment.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a promising start to the careers of both writer/director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen. It’s script is emotional, engaging and hypnotic. The events challenge perceptions and exposes the manipulations of a cult state of mind. The horror is how effortlessly the commune group is able to convert its victims into family members following the lead of Hawkes’ masterful Patrick. Even more horrific, is the lasting effects those manipulations have upon the fragile minds they conquer. His presence is felt in every frame of the film and in every thought of Martha. The brilliant performances and solid direction make Martha Marcy May Marlene a must see independent film with a provocative and compelling script.