by Tony Dayoub
Tense as it is, I still can't wholeheartedly get behind Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer-director Sean Durkin's first feature. The title refers to all the names used to identify the lead character played by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famous Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley). The movie unfolds utilizing a parallel story structure. One thread follows the protagonist's time as the member of a cult led by the creepily charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). The other looks at her life after she leaves the cult and returns to live with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
In the opening sequence, Martha escapes from the cult, based in the Catskills, and calls her sister Lucy to come pick her up. Lucy is unaware of where Martha has been. Lucy believes they simply lost touch because of their prickly relationship, and, she suspects, because Martha may have been involved with an abusive boyfriend. Olsen initially portrays Martha as nearly a blank slate, fresh and new to the comfortable world her sister has made for herself with her architect husband. The three stay in a spacious, lakeside home that Lucy and Ted own just outside of New York City. Lucy attributes any awkwardness Martha displays to their difficulty interacting as sisters until Martha decides to go nude in broad daylight, and in front of her husband, to swim in the lake.
At first, one could easily ascribe Martha's transgression to sibling rivalry or sexual precociousness, except that Martha frequently looks like a deer caught in headlights. She either jumps if one comes to close to her, or she seems lost in thoughts emanating from a great distance. It is usually in such moments that Durkin flashes back to Martha's time on Patrick's farm. There she lived a seemingly idyllic existence, with the apparently benevolent Patrick leading two other men, and even more women, on a peaceful crusade to get back in touch with the land, avoid the influence of money as much as possible, and share in the work needed to run the farm. It's no surprise that it's a patriarchal community, the men responsible for gathering materials they need to survive, recruiting new converts, while the women do the gardening, cooking, sewing, and child-rearing.
But why are there only male babies? Why do the women have to wait for the men to eat before they can sit together and break bread? Why does Patrick give Martha a new name, Marcy May? This sense of entitlement bleeds over into Patrick's relationship with Marcy May, who he rapes one night — a form of ritual initiation — as she lays half asleep (likely drugged) in a private cabin far from the communal bedroom she shares with the other women. Patrick starts encouraging Marcy May to learn how to shoot, and before long she is taking short invasive jaunts with him and his most trusted associates into people's homes, weekend abodes not unlike the one belonging to Marcy May's... er, Martha's sister, Lucy.
Durkin is effective at creating a sense of imbalance, particularly in the subplot involving Martha's acclimation to life outside the farm. Tight framing on Olsen, who gives an excellent performance, puts one right in her uncomfortable state of mind. One often fears what may be lying just out of frame. As Martha starts coming to terms with the disquieting differences between life in the cult and outside of it, her paranoia seems to increase, so that she becomes hyperaware that Patrick and his clan might still be watching her. Durkin capitalizes on this several times, presenting situations in which strangers intrude on the film from a far enough distance that one can't be sure whether they are interested in Martha or just coincidentally passing by.
But Martha Marcy May Marlene ends abruptly without answering any questions. And while some may say this is deliberate — a reflection of the inability for the film's main character to ever achieve a true sense of closure — it smacks of a failure by Durkin to come to a believable and satisfying conclusion, a problem plaguing most horror films today. After all of the buildup, Martha Marcy May Marlene never achieves a true climax. That might be fine were this an inquisitive documentary, but it's simply annoying, lazy and not just a bit pretentious in a genre-based narrative.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is playing at the 49th New York Film Festival tonight, at 9:15 pm, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023, and at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, October 12th, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center's Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.
It opens in limited release October 21st.