Cult Classic, by Scott Nye
A character examination disguised as a thriller, Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene is a stunning accomplishment. It’s that all-too-rare Sundance breakthrough that is as concerned with its form as well as its content. Tackling the indie-friendly subject of a woman trying to fit back into society following two years in a cult commune, Durkin unfolds his story with rare assurance. We meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she is fleeing the commune, and cautiously works up the courage to ask her sister to pick her up at a roadside cafe.
From there, Durkin falls into a reliable, but never dry, pattern of showing one scene in the present, then another from her past in the commune. The two timelines slowly seep into one another, never withholding immediate clues for the eagle-eyed viewer to discern time and place. But combined with Durkin’s excellent hand with composition (utilizing mirrors, water, and shadows), those moments provide just enough disorientation to get us into Martha’s head space as a woman unstuck from time.
As the flashbacks progress, we see just how thoroughly entrenched Martha became in the cult, going from an intrigued outsider to an active proponent, but it’s only the present day that really drives the psychological damage home. There it’s not just a matter of recognizing what’s past is past, and that it can’t reach her in this remote country estate, but also that certain behaviors – be they towards food, clothing (or lack thereof), sex, or social customs – have become so much a part of her that separating the two is now impossible.
If the film falters, it’s in its attitude towards Martha, which is sympathetic if not terribly understanding. As people who wind up on communes, cult or otherwise, often are, Martha is something of a free spirit, and the contrast between her and her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is a little too insistent. Lucy is married to Ted, a big-shot Manhattan real estate developer (Hugh Dancy), and the clashes between them and Martha are unsurprisingly predictable and a little staid. Better are the moments that give some subversion, in which Lucy chooses Martha’s well-being over her husband’s comfort, or the subtle insinuation that he might have some more unseemly desires of his own. I don’t think it’s pure hospitality that fuels his urge to take Martha out on the lake and insist she drink, but Durkin never really takes it to an interesting conclusion, though he certainly sets himself up to.
But the film remains marvelously accomplished, utilizing the “thriller” aesthetic in the way Polanski did with Repulsion or, more recently, Aronofsky did with Black Swan – as a means of exploring inner violence, rather than an outer threat. Martha Marcy May Marlene is more than just a clever title, but gives us a window through which to view the film and its protagonist, as a many-fractured being, constantly at war with her different selves and the period of her life they represent. It’s a considerable challenge for any actress, and Olsen takes it on with absolute conviction. Aside from some childhood appearances in her more-famous twin sister’s line of videos, this is her acting debut, and marks one of those rare announcements of talent that one aches to see.
Olsen’s bravery extends far beyond the manner in which that term is usually applied to women in films (although, granted, she does get naked early and often) – she’s unafraid of being the bad guy in a given situation, but she’s also more than willing to be the victim in a situation for which she must take some blame. For all the awful things the cult devises, largely under the direction of its leader, Patrick (an always-excellent John Hawkes), the film thankfully doesn’t remove the responsibility of the individual. Martha is there, and eventually leaves, on her own free will, but Durkin ably examines the very thin line separating personal ownership in an extreme situation. Never more do we feel this effect than right at the beginning, when Martha calls her sister to finally escape, once and for all. Here, Martha is at the absolute edge, the furthest she could be from any manner of comfort and safety she has ever known, and Olsen embodies the absolute desperation of someone who knows that if they don’t get help right now, their life will be over, while still being absolutely terrified of the possibility of change. It’s heavy stuff, right up front, but it’s important to know how far out on a limb she is, and how important familiarity can be.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the rare film that gets better the more you think about it. It has some rough patches, and I’m still wrestling with how I feel about the subdued color palette, but it’s an incredibly striking debut film spotlighting an actress I hope will become an important new creative force. It’s always nice to remember that people still care about this art form, and even better to see how capable they are of executing it.