REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: October 21st, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Sean Durkin
Writer(s): Sean Durkin

“Death is pure love”

Lost and alone, Martha never knew what love was. Her parents gone at a young age, her sister away in college, living with a chimney for an aunt who to this day she says hated her—loneliness always prevailed whether people were around or not. So it’s no surprise she would be lured in by the kindness, compassion, and gentle voices of a commune living off the beaten path. A community of strays reborn into a life with purpose, she would find her place and never feel isolated again. But as we meet her—now Marcy May—we only see fear in her eyes. With a group of scantily clad women waiting patiently for the men to finish eating, this home appears more prison than sanctuary. And as the sun rises against sleeping bodies, Martha makes her escape.

With Martha Marcy May Marlene, first-time director Sean Durkin crafts a stunning portrait of psychological strife and a fractured soul’s inability to discern between memory and reality. Winning him the directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the work is an assured debut with a powerful central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen. Jumping in time with seamless transitions between Martha’s sister’s home and the cult-run farm she left, the story dissolves all barriers separating the two. The longer this troubled girl stays in a safe place the quicker her feelings of comfort return and anxiousness takes over as she wonders if this safety is real. Paranoia sets in and the sense she never actually got away becomes too much to bear.

Run by Patrick (John Hawkes), the commune is a place where young men and women go to forget the harsh realities of loved ones who left them behind. A patriarch who cares deeply about the health of his followers, he shepherds them towards subservience with a goal for the greater good firmly in place. He understands the dynamic at play; he knows the boys stay to get closer to the girls and he tries to strengthen the women to empower themselves as a result. A father, lover, and cleanser of souls to all, he makes ties to the past disappear with direct speech and a harsh demeanor cultivating as much respect and gratitude as fear. Hawkes embodies the role with a sinewy, emaciated visage and the deep soothing voice of a hypnotist lulling his hoard to sleep with promises of enlightenment and a life devoid of the pain and suffering they all know too well.

Durkin rightfully never allows us to imagine Patrick as anything more than a monster. By introducing us to the group as their Marcy May runs through the woods to freedom, any illusions of safety are gone in a flash. We see her huddle under the cover of trees as the milky flesh of nightgowned women rush past calling her name and we discover her famished appetite at the diner she seeks cover in before found by cult brother Watts (Brady Corbet). Nervous, frightened, and devoid of even a shred of smile, she says she isn’t ready to go back and he surprisingly listens. Instead of a maneuver of compassion, however, this charity becomes one more chess move in a game almost always ending in the victim’s return to abuse since its physical degradation is better than the cold harsh reality of surviving alone.

In about ten minutes of film the story has been set—Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) in tears and escape quickly devolves into yet another form of captivity. Caught in a web of regret and guilt, the youngest wishes to start over while the eldest wants nothing more than an answer to why it’s been two years since they last talked. It’s this digging by Lucy and the curiosity of her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) that triggers a return to Patrick in Martha’s mind. Little things like a spoon stirring a glass of water transports us into the past horrors of her tragically mistaken path. With each memory comes a renewed sense of fear as the events leading to her liberation escalate to unfathomable crimes done in the name of spiritual healing and the belief all living creatures are merely projections forever alive on another plane of existence whether breathing in our world or not.

We learn about her ‘sister’ Zoe (Louisa Krause) and the friendship formed between them despite being the one to lead her into hell. Young Sarah (Julia Garner) joins the group and it’s Marcy May’s turn to help assimilate her, now a den mother too. We discover their self-sufficiency is bolstered by crime and ‘love’ proves to be a word used to trap rather than cherish. Durkin deftly injects these vignettes into the present at opportune moments to both scare and enrage Lucy and Ted as well as to juxtapose Martha’s ever-changing demeanors through time. A tiny smile and laugh break through the blank look of despair staring off into the distance when with her sister, but we see true happiness only when watching her first days with Patrick. The contrast is extreme as scenes morph from lakeside summer home to secluded farmland; the silent turmoil of now replacing the past radiance we hardly believe possible.

Olsen’s performance portrays excruciating psychological pain in one instance and a joy for life the next as we experience her vulnerability and turmoil trying to differentiate between fact, fiction, past, and present. We witness the need for love to be tough as Lucy and Ted reconcile their next step in helping her and begin to understand the desire to run into Patrick’s arms as he expresses his feelings through song in a powerful scene portraying the strength of his hold. Her need to accept abuse to feel safe becomes sadly comprehensible and our hope for a utopian world removed from these horrors fades away. At one point Patrick tells Marcy May she’s his favorite and he’ll never lose her. We believe it’s just a line until the end gives pause to wonder if promise would be honored. Before we can work it all out, though, the truth hits hard with the realization that he is and always will be a part of her—body, soul, and mind.

[1] Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Photo by Jody Lee Lipes. TM and C 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
[2] John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Photo by Drew Innis TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
[3] from left: John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Photo by Jody Lee Lipes. TM and C 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.