As I stepped into the surprisingly spacious screening room of Downtown Riverside’s Culver Center, I expected “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to be a cookie-cutter psychological thriller. The independent film was released early 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival and only saw a limited release. What I saw instead was a film that is as much about questions of identity as it is about the tenuous nature of youth and the necessity of belonging. It was awesome.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” follows a woman’s escape from an isolated cult based in upstate New York. The first few minutes of the film are devoid of any spoken lines; instead, Durkin emphasizes the natural sounds of life on the cult’s farm. We see women hanging clothes on a clothesline and tending to children while the men chop wood. The opening scenes feel unsettling, but the audience can’t quite identify what’s wrong until we see the men eating dinner, followed by the women taking their turn at the table. Their nonchalance about the dinner shifts makes everything seem routine, and the absence of spoken word makes the entire opening absolutely horrifying.
The story begins in a period of transition. As the title character, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes into the surrounding forest in the early hours of the morning, one of the cult’s men calls after her retreating frame: “Marcy! Marcy May! Where ya goin’?” Even though she has no idea where she’s headed without her cult identity, Martha makes her way into town and takes up residence in her sister’s beautiful lakeside home. There, in an environment as far from the cult as she can get, Martha struggles to settle into a new idea of normal.
The audience learns about her cult life in the form of flashbacks. These scenes are presented as vivid memories, and Durkin seamlessly transitions into these flashbacks by using elements from present-day Connecticut to cut back to the cult. Time is used as a tool, and its purpose is to slowly reveal the horrors of Martha’s cult life. We learn about Patrick (John Hawkes) the cult’s gentle-voiced leader, father figure and enforcer. Hawkes’ performance as Patrick is terrifying. He manages to instill a sense of power into his voice without ever wavering from a cajoling murmur, and his eyes are constantly watchful over his clan’s every movement.
Elizabeth Olsen’s debut performance is phenomenal. Her slow descent into paranoia as Martha fears the cult has found her feels genuine because, somehow, Olsen packs Martha’s past, ever-present sense of fear and need for belonging into her performance. Olsen must balance many emotional roles; as the title suggests, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” refers to her character’s different names assigned by the cult in order to dissociate herself from her identity, and Olsen wears these roles with a quiet, haunting ferocity. After this role, Olsen will no longer be “that sister that’s not Mary Kate or Ashley.”
After the cult finds Martha, the film ends on ambiguous note. Surprisingly, it’s not a frustrating end; like its beginning, the story ends in period of transition from one stage of life to the next. As an audience, we hope for the best because Durkin has turned Martha into a character we emphasize with. His ending is effective because it’s the most emotionally resonant, and Martha’s wide-eyed stare lingers with its viewer for days afterwards.
Rating: 4 stars