Martha Marcy May Marlene: Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson
(Photo by Jody Lee Lipes)
It won’t surprise you to learn that a movie with Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s mouthful of a title tacks itself to a damaged young woman who struggles to fit splintered identities together. But this will surprise you: Names are just about the only honest details you can expect to get out of it.
Written and directed by first-timer Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller pared down to the bone. While it stands of the backs of stellar performances and deft camerawork, it’s not a movie for everyone. Forget about answers — sometimes, it doesn’t even bother to give you questions.
The opening scenes land Durkin’s first steps of no-tell exposition: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) stumbles into the woods, fleeing a supposedly utopian, free-love commune and its charismatic philosopher-king, Patrick (John Hawkes). She finds her way to a rural diner, parries Patrick’s erstwhile pimp, Watts (Brady Corbet), who was tracking her, then phones Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a sister she hasn’t spoken to in more than two years. She’s beaten, sloppy and hysterical.
So, as is wont for any kind-hearted WASP to do, Lucy picks Martha up, then hauls her out to a summer cottage in Connecticut for a bit of rest and relaxation. (Martha, lying, tells Lucy that she was living with a boyfriend in the Catskills.) Her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), is none too happy about the third wheel, but plays along for family’s sake. And from there, Durkin begins to let the paranoia seep in.
Scenes start to fade between moment and memory. When Martha dives into a nearby lake, she gets pulled into a forgotten hazy day of nude swimming up north. When she’s helping Lucy prepare dinner, she’s suddenly back on the farm, being chastised for eating before supper. The back-and-forth between her two lives — three, if you consider the moment that led her to flee to begin with — is surprisingly self-assured in its juxtaposition. In less capable hands this would be a gimmick; here, it underscores a creeping agony. Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes play a few nifty games to ratchet up the tension — off-center close ups of Olsen push scenes away from comfortable balance, while a slow zoom technique that re-appears again and again suggests a menacing unknown, slowly closing in and around Martha as she unravels.
And that’s the real strength of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen isn’t over-the-top with her breakdown, but looks toward some internal anguish. She chafes and smolders, seeming hard when challenged and soft when left to her own; her face projects something vivid that troubles within, but holds onto an opaqueness that won’t reveal what that something is. Regardless of who’s sharing the screen with her, she gives and takes and plays off the cast, weaving a sensitive chemistry between Martha and the people around her.
It doesn’t hurt to have actors like Hawkes across to play opposite. He’s a Manson-like messiah, rife with an absolute belief system and an unnerving charisma that he uses to draw in his victims. He radiates unlike anyone else on-screen, most notably when he’s first seducing Martha, who he dubs Marcy May immediately after meeting. As he’s strumming “Marcy’s Song” on an acoustic guitar, the camera lingers on his face, then cuts to Olsen. He’s won her over to his cult completely, and in that moment, owns her as a puppeteer does a marionette. Hawkes sweats confidence and leers away, only hinting at the sociopath beneath the surface.
Still, Martha Marcy May Marlene isn’t about the damaging effects of cults as much as it’s about dreams and reality and the irrational perspective that lies between. Before Durkin drops a hint as to, well … anything, Martha hears bumps in the night and sees things that may or may not exist. She’s in a blur between past and present, her psyche shattered and splattered across the inside of her skull. Before long, she starts to question what she’s dreamt and what she’s lived, doubting her sanity and panicking as her mind spirals deeper into delusions.
And suddenly, it’s all sold out. Despite hours spent building an uncanny strain, Durkin settles on an abrupt finish that weighs in on Martha’s scarred perception. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s frustrating. For a movie so intent on avoiding the how and why, Martha Marcy May Marlene ends too keen on knowing what’s next.