Martha Marcy May Marlene

Throw us a bone here
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Sean Durkin
Starring: 
Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
The Setup: 
Girl escapes cult but can't quite snap out of it.
Discussion: 

The trailer for this movie makes it look as though a woman's mysterious sister appears out of the past, then is gradually revealed as a psycho and we are invited to imagine might wreak some kind of havoc. Then reviews reveal it to be about a girl who escapes a cult, and interest is piqued still further. But ultimately the havoc never comes, and you're left with a bunch of fascinating, beautifully-rendered build-up that leads up to nothing.

We open with scenes of people relaxing on a farm. Men eat first, then file out past the waiting women, who shuffle in and eat afterward. We see the women sleeping on mattresses on the floor of one room, and one of them, Martha, slips out. As she heads outside, one of the women is seen watching her from a window. A man calls after her as she slips across the street into the woods. She runs through the woods, and hides as women and men fan out after her. We see her in a diner, where one of the farm's men shows up and menacingly asks her what's up. He leaves her there, which rings a bit false, but sets the movie in motion. She calls her sister, who we will soon learn hasn't heard from her in two years. The sister, Lucy, picks her up and takes her to the Connecticut vacation home she is sharing with her husband, Ted.

Martha, played by lost Olsen sister Elizabeth, will say nothing about where she's been except that she had a boyfriend. She says she lost her cell phone years back and never bought another one. The first strange thing happens when she wants to go swimming, and removes all her clothes. Lucy is left to scold her and say they just don't do such things here. Now we start having flashbacks of Martha's first days on the farm, meeting John Hawkes of Winter's Bone as Patrick, who exerts the black-eyed, subtle menace that seems to be his calling card. He tells Martha she "looks like a Marcy-May," which is what everyone on the farm calls her from then on. If you know the movie is about a cult, you can see the machinations being enacted to dissociate Martha from her identity. If you don't know, I would guess at this point you are rapidly putting it all together.

It continues this way, scenes of Martha acting a little odd with her sister and husband, and quite ungrateful for all they are doing for her, interspersed with flashbacks of her absorption into the cult. We see Patrick say that she's been abandoned all her life, but upbraid her for remaining closed off and not letting anyone in. Then we see Martha waking up on a farm floor, and realize that Patrick is raping her. Afterward, one of the cult girls tells her it might seem bad, but what happened is actually wonderful, and that she'd "give anything to have her first time again." Martha acts strange with Lucy and husband, flashbacks to her cult years, repeat.

SPOILERS > > >
Eventually Patrick becomes more menacing, and a gun is introduced. We start to see the cult invading people's homes and stealing, and finally killing a man. After Martha climbs in bed with Lucy and husband while they're having sex, she is sharply rebuked, and runs off to call the cult. When she hangs up, they call right back, and the rest of the movie is suffused with the sense of dread that it's only a matter of time before they find Martha, and will probably spell bad things for Lucy and Ted.

Eventually Patrick becomes more menacing, and a gun is introduced. We start to see the cult invading people's homes and stealing, and finally killing a man. After Martha climbs in bed with Lucy and husband while they're having sex, she is sharply rebuked, and runs off to call the cult. When she hangs up, they call right back, and the rest of the movie is suffused with the sense of dread that it's only a matter of time before they find Martha, and will probably spell bad things for Lucy and Ted. Still, Martha remains opaque and tight-lipped right to the end. The movie ends with a very menacing suggestion, and the promise of violence about to explode, and just when it's about to, and you're gearing up for something big to happen--end credits.
< < < SPOILERS END

So first, the good aspects, which are considerable. The movie rests on the excellent performance of Elizabeth Olsen, who runs with it. She is able to convey a world of emotions happening within her while remaining in a character that never expresses herself. She is maddeningly inexpressive and brusque to Lucy and Ted, so one can completely understand their frustration with her, yet she also seems convincingly traumatized and unhinged in the head, so we understand her even as we want to bash her over the head. In the final scene, when danger looms, you can see her about to say something to warn them, but thinking maybe she shouldn't invite more criticism. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her nominated for Best Actress for this film. Lucy and Ted are fine, but John Hawkes once again stands out for the powerful fascination he exerts, as well as the eerie menace he is able to convey. This guy is genuinely scary, and one never has any doubt that he could be this manipulative cult leader. When he is standing within a man's home that he invaded, he stands still and talks quietly, and is completely terrifying. So the whole delicate balancing act the movie needs to maintain is pulled off excellently.

Thing is, ultimately it's all build-up and character study, then just ends. That's fine, except the movie throughout seems to be promising us a climax that never comes. You're gearing up, gearing up, then it's over. One way in which a film can appear a bit more artsy and of higher quality is to deny us the base excitement we might want from a more popular piece of entertainment, but there doesn't have to be anything wrong or debasing about offering us the climax we've been promised all along. I was expecting this to end with a big violent confrontation, which the movie throughout was building toward, and I would have been much more satisfied with the film overall if it only had one. As it is, one feels a bit cheated, or that the entire thing is slightly less than one hoped it would be. When it ended, my friend Howard postulated the theory that Martha had been a plant in the family all along, that her whole intrusion into the lives of Lucy and Ted had been part of an overall plan, but this theory fell apart in seconds, and we had to agree that he was just giving the film the benefit of a doubt, trying to believe in some way that it is more than it is. But it's not. And guys, you know, throw us a bone here. It won't cheapen your film--it'll just give us a reason for watching it. A little movie satisfaction is not necessarily a bad thing.

A few night later Howard and I were at Blowoff and ended up talking about this movie a bit while trying to be heard over the music. Rich Morel was playing at that time, so it goes without saying that we weren't dancing. Howard summed up what this movie is lacking with a little mini-tirade: "It's not about cults. It's not about cult leaders. It's not about the kinds of girls that are drawn to cults. It's not about how family members might react to women who have been in cults. It's not about how our society sets up some women to join cults. It's not about the kinds of guys who end up as cult leaders. It is just THAT STORY and nothing else." And that's about it; this is just the story of one young woman and her family, and just doesn't have much to offer above and beyond all that. It's well done at the plot and character level, but that's about all you're going to get.

Overall, worth watching, well directed, well written, very good performances and all that, but without the climax it's been building toward, or larger content about anything, it ends up something you'd be fine to catch on video, or even on an airplane. It strives for an increased air of quality by denying us our base movie pleasures, but ends up making itself something nice, but purely optional. See it if you want, or wait for video, or skip it entirely. You've seen good writing and performances before.

Should you watch it: 

You're fine to wait for video or just skip it entirely.