The fragility of the human psyche seems especially pertinent at this particular moment, as evidenced by recent zeitgeist films such as Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter and Miranda July’s The Future. Sean Durkin suggests in an interview: “I guess I’m most afraid of conforming. Groups that conform in a blind way without understanding what’s happening to them, that terrifies me. That was a major fear of mine as a child.” Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us then that fear permeates his debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, a riveting character study of a young cult victim, which might be the most disturbing film I’ve seen this year.
Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with scenes of a rural commune, in which dinner is segregated by gender – not surprisingly, the men eat first. While everyone is sleeping, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been renamed Marcy May, suddenly bolts into the thick woods. A male voice calls out, “Marcy May, where are you going?” As she runs frantically, others soon follow in pursuit. At a small-town diner, she appears paranoid as she makes furtive glances and wolfs down her food. Sure enough, she is confronted by another member, Watts (Brady Corbet), who has tracked her down. Martha manages to use a payphone to call her sister, who begs her to come home. We feel relieved when she’s rescued from the Catskills and transported to her older sister’s lakeside retreat in Connecticut. Once there, she learns that Lucy (Sarah Paulson) has recently married a developer named Ted (Hugh Dancy).
When quizzed about her whereabouts – it turns out she’s been missing for two years – Martha offers a vague story about a boyfriend with whom she’s broken up. If something seems “off” about Martha’s responses, the same could be said about Lucy’s. Claiming to feel guilty, she has accepted her sister’s disappearance with an odd sense of nonchalance. “Get a good night’s sleep,” she tells Martha, “and you’ll be as good as new tomorrow.” Lucy, who’s clearly in denial, tells Ted, “She seems okay.” Whereas Curtis in Take Shelter is tormented by images from the future, Martha is haunted by memories from her past. Signs that things are not okay become obvious when she begins to talk and act inappropriately. The first comes when Martha impulsively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake in front of Ted. She also wonders why their house is so big, and blurts out, “Is it true that married people don’t fuck?”
The film uses a parallel structure in shifting between the present and Martha’s past life in the commune, which is slowly revealed to be a bizarre cult, run by a skinny Charles Manson-like figure named Patrick (John Hawkes), who has sex with all the young women. Shortly after he initiates Martha, she falls under his spell after he sings a song about her in front of the others. Whether it’s the result of the juxtaposition of scenes, there seems to be a sexual undercurrent between Martha and Ted as well. When Lucy goes into New York City, the two are left together. There’s something about the way he slips behind her in showing her how to navigate a speedboat that feels smarmy. The two also drink beer together afterward. When he confides that he and Lucy are trying to have a baby, Martha bursts out laughing. She tells him dismissively, “I can’t imagine Lucy holding a baby. She wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
In a flashback, we watch Martha slip into bed with Patrick during the middle of the night. Right after this, she gets into bed with Lucy and Ted while they’re in the heat of making love. Lucy insists that there are defined boundaries. Flustered, she explains to her, “It’s private.” She gets Martha to admit that what she did was wrong “because it’s private and not normal.” As a result of the intrusion, Ted is forced to spend the night on the sofa. In the morning, Lucy thanks him for his patience, but he flat out tells her that her younger sister’s behavior is “fucking insane.” Martha talks about being confused about the difference between memories and dreams. When she acts as if this is natural, Lucy suddenly asks, “Do you blame me?” Martha insists, “I’m a teacher and a leader and I know who I am.” Lucy answers, “What are you talking about?”
When Ted questions Martha about her career plans, she asserts that there are other ways to live. She tells him, “People don’t need careers. People should just exist.” She has an ideological defense for her lack of ambition and becomes more vocal in her criticisms of her sister and husband, who define success in terms of money and possessions. After Ted chews her out for being a freeloader, Martha explodes: “You don’t know anything about it.” The temporal shifts between past and present become more revealing as the film progresses. If we question how Patrick holds power over his followers, there’s a key scene where he teaches Marcy May to shoot a gun in the forest. “Think of someone who has hurt you,” he tells her, as she aims her weapon. The tension increases as Patrick’s sociopathic nature suddenly becomes manifest.
The members of the commune, who eat a single meal a day, talk about creating a sustainable farm, but in the interim Patrick has them hit up their parents for money and also break into lavish houses to get what they need. There’s a scene in which Lucy gives Martha a makeover before a party, which seems to reference Bergman’s Persona, but Martha has a meltdown during it. When Lucy tells her that they want to have a family and she can’t stay with them any longer, Martha tells her: “Lucy, you’re going to be a terrible mother.” Lucy and Ted’s decision about Martha sends the film toward what feels like an inevitable conclusion.
Sean Durkin was part of the team that created Antonio Campos’s Afterschool (2008). Durkin gets a terrific performance from Elizabeth Olsen in her acting debut. Her face exhibits an inscrutable innocence that also harbors deep pain and unfathomable secrets. In short, she captures the schizoid nature of Martha, whose fractured identity is reflected in the title of the film and her three different names. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller, with overtones of the horror genre. The latter reaction seemed to surprise Durkin, who deservedly won the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Maybe the sense of horror we feel in Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene merely reflects the sense of the abnormal that has become a part of our everyday lives. It’s little wonder that the genre is having a big resurgence.