Sean Durkin's feature debut as director is a phenomenally dark glimpse into the life of a cult and a harrowing portrayal of a damaged woman's psyche. At its core is a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who runs away to join a cult, the story starts up when she flees from the group and attempts to re-connect with her family. Gradually through her memories we learn what happened there and what caused her to leave.
Backstory is kept to an absolute minimum here, the most we get to know about Martha is that her sister is her only family and that she ran away two years prior cutting off all contact. Her sister Zoe is now married and she and her husband care for Martha best they can while they stay at their holiday home by an enormous lake. It's not long before Martha's behaviour becomes extremely unorthodox, erratic and plain antisocial making living arrangements difficult for the new party of three. Martha refuses to open up to her sister about where she's been and what has happened to her over the past two years but we are granted periodic glimpses into Martha's recent past. How accurate these scenes are is left entirely up to the viewer to decide due to Martha's unreliable state. As a whole the film feels very subjective from Martha's untrustworthy account of events, never giving us the full picture.
[Martha and concerned sister Zoe]
The cult is a vague operation - a small community of mainly young females led by Patrick (the always brilliant John Hawkes). They live and work on a derelict farm each with their own purpose, they are encouraged to learn knew skills and to develop ones they already have. Patrick encourages the boys to write songs on their guitars and in an unforgettable scene Patrick shares his own song for Martha ( or Marcy May as she's known there). It's an eerily haunting ballad as hypnotic as the film it resides in. Days on the farm are regimented into hours of work and rest, for example no one is allowed to eat until evening with the men eating first followed by the women second at the same table. As further details are revealed however, things take a more sinister nasty turn and the ways of the cult prove to be more dangerous and destructive than at first glance.
[Cult leader Patrick reciting the haunting 'Marcy's Song]
The less one knows about Martha Marcy May Marlene the better, due to this I will stop from divulging in any further lot points, though the film's plot is extremely simple and loose anyway. What I will say is how much this film deserves its hype; the fact that Sean Durkin received best director at Sundance for this is no surprise at all. The film is perfectly paced and masterfully structured with seamless transitions from past and present, it has an almost European quality to it like the American films of the 70s, the kind of film Robert Altman perhaps could have made then and a film Michael Haneke could make now.
The performances are stellar, particularly Elizabeth Olsen as Martha; She carries the entire film and is present in nearly every shot, her presence alone makes the film so utterly enthralling and she makes Martha someone we want to care for despite hardly knowing her. Two years ago John Hawkes starred along side young newcomer Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, here he stars with another young actress who will surely go onto bigger things just as quickly.
At the heart of Martha Marcy May Marlene is a story of identity, a story of a young woman desperately trying to find a place in the world, to know her role. A resonant subject that we can all relate to. The multiple names in the film's tongue twisting title refers to Martha not knowing who she is anymore and the tragedy that she probably never did. Has Martha ever had a true identity? The film drops us in her life and hints that this is indeed the case then leaves us with our own decision on whether she ever will find her calling, whether she will ever escape that farm.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an utterly hypnotic piece of work that reminds of how truly exciting cinema can be. The sheer levels of recognised talent here will most definitely kick-start the careers of its creator and lead actress. The film offers insights into why people feel the need to join such alternate lifestyles but never judges or condescends them. Durkin's screenplay never dictates right and wrong but only asks...what is the right way to live?
For Fans of:
Marnie (1964), Repulsion (1965), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), 3 Women (1977), Funny Games (1997), The White Ribbon (2009)