Spookiness trumps substance in ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’
Identity can be a fragile thing. In Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, the heroine’s sense of selfhood is as fractured as the film’s title; a runaway from a cult and its hypnotic psycho leader, she’s literally trying to find herself. Unfortunately, the film also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It wants to be a thriller, a character study, and even a domestic family drama, but it never quite hits its marks in any department. There’s plenty of menace to go around, mostly told in flashbacks, but because the character remains as elusive to the filmmaker (and the viewer) as she is to herself, there’s little to anchor audience interest in her story.
Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley). It’s an impressively shaded performance—much of it conveyed in wary silences—considering what she has to work with. In the opening sequence, we see her zip on her hoodie one early morning and sneak away from a remote community farmhouse. She manages to elude a party of other young people from the group who chase her through the woods, but when one of them tracks her down to a diner in the next town, she makes a desperate phone call for help.
The woman who picks her up is her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes Martha home to the fancy lakeside vacation house in the Catskills that she and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy) rent for the summer. Martha has dropped out of sight for two years, and Lucy blames herself for not looking after her sister better after their mother died. But all Martha is willing or able to tell them about where she’s been is that she was off upstate, living with a boyfriend.
Something peculiar has been going on, however, from the bruise Lucy notices on Martha’s ear to her habit of curling up in a ball to sleep on top of her bed at night. She marvels that their house is “so big” for just the two of them, and thinks nothing of stripping off all her clothes to swim in the lake—or of creeping into Lucy and Ted’s bedroom in the middle of the night while they’re having sex and curling up beside them. “Private” and “normal” are concepts Martha doesn’t seem to get, and guilt-ridden Lucy keeps putting up with it, hoping her sister will eventually confide in her.
Meanwhile, flashbacks sketch in the cult Martha has fled. Under charismatic nut-job leader, Patrick (the excellent John Hawkes), it’s a community mostly of subservient young women who clean, garden, and cook all the meals—which they’re not allowed to eat until the men have finished. The job of the few young men in the group is to go out and recruit more girls. The first thing Patrick does is give each girl a new name (he calls Martha “Marcy May”), soon followed by a brutal sexual initiation. The job of the older women is to convince each new victim that “We wouldn’t all still be here if what happened (to you) was bad.”
Having erased their identities and willpower, Patrick’s influence becomes even creepier. He teaches his followers marksmanship by having them pretend the target is someone who’s hurt or betrayed them, unleashing malleable psychic demons as potent as his own. No wonder Martha is so lacking in social skills back in the “real” world, or dares not articulate her fears that Patrick will find her again to her angsty sister and increasingly fed-up brother-in-law.
The problem is, we don’t know anything about Martha before her life in the cult. It’s mentioned she never went to college; was she an impressionable teen fresh out of high school when she fell in with Patrick’s tribe? Was she a tough runaway who’d been on her own for awhile? Did she ever have any kind of normal life with which to compare Patrick’s tyranny? Because we never know what kind of personality she had before Patrick corrupted it, it’s hard to feel empathy for what she’s lost or become. Durkin is fine at generating spookiness and exploring the cult psychology, but we never have much of a stake in his protagonist
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, and John Hawkes. Written and directed by Sean Durkin. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 101 minutes.