Author’s note: From 2011 to 2012, I collaborated with my peers on a project called Cultural Transmogrifier, an online magazine dedicated to pop culture. With the project now defunct, I’ve dredged up my old essays from the site to share with you here.
The 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene chronicles a young woman’s escape from a cult and her difficult transition back into society. Each name in the title is used by the same young woman (played expertly by Elizabeth Olsen), indicating the difficulty she has establishing her own identity; outside of the cult she’s known as Martha, within the cult she’s Marcy May, and when she answers the phone at the cult’s communal residence she’s Marlene. The indie film received 34 award nominations and 12 wins, including Sundance Film Festival’s Best Directing (Dramatic) award for writer and director Sean Durkin.
One of the most striking aspects of Martha Marcy May Marlene is the blending of past and present. Durkin smoothly transitions out of Martha’s new life with her sister Lucy into her old life in the cult. At times, particularly at the beginning of the film, this intermingling creates confusion as to where we are on Martha’s timeline. But this confusion works perfectly, echoing the disorientation that Martha feels after leaving the cult. During those first few days with her sister, she often experiences flashbacks that can’t distinguish from the present reality. For example, Martha dreams about one of the last times the cult leader Patrick seduced her. When her brother-in-law Ted tries to wake her, she attacks him, forgetting where she is and mistaking him for Patrick.
Durkin also succeeds in what is essentially the “character” development of the cult. Initially, the cult to which Martha belongs appears relatively benign. We see a group of people living together communally, helping each other with everything, developing a self-sufficient farm, and frequently playing music together. In these respects, the cult seems nice, maybe even appealing. During these early scenes, we can perhaps understand why Martha, a person who has never really had strong family ties or real companionship, feels drawn to it.
As the film progresses, the cult’s disturbing qualities begin to surface. Patrick drugs Elizabeth and rapes her—an initiation ceremony all women of the cult go through, which is uniformly referred to as a woman’s “special night.” Afterwards, Martha confides in a fellow cult member that she’s still in pain and we can infer that prior to this evening, Martha had been a virgin.
Patrick also begins to bear a striking resemblance to Charles Manson. Like Manson, Patrick encourages his followers to think of themselves as a family. Like Manson, Patrick cultivates disdain for the rich or well-to-do among. Criticizing those who measure success by wealth and possessions, Patrick and his followers feel entitled to break into people’s homes and rob them as the Manson family notoriously did.
Never mind that if possessions are evil, stealing to obtain them is an inherent contradiction. Never mind that the cult members’ livelihood is contingent upon the success of the very people they condemn.
The cult’s deference to Manson becomes clearly evident during the film’s climax. During one break-in, the house’s resident catches them, and one of the cult members murders him. With the exception of Martha, not one person seems remorseful or even shocked.
The murder exemplifies how manipulative Patrick is and his uncanny ability tobrainwash those around him. Upon discovering that Martha is distraught over the murder, Patrick accuses her of not trusting him, which makes her feel guilty. He then attempts to convince her that she need not be upset about the murder because death is love. By his logic, she fears death, but that fear is beautiful, because it forces her to be present. Being present allows us to be truly happy and therefore allows us to openly give and receive love. Therefore, death is love.
Despite these directorial feats, Durkin’s film contains glaring problems that prevent it from being impeccable. One of the problems is that the dialog is few and far between. While in and of itself not a problem (unless you are like me and prefer dialog heavy films), the sparse dialog leads to other issues. Because it’s sparse, you expect the dialog that does exist to be poignant and exact. Unfortunately, it’s weak and redundant. One of the most frequently spoken lines throughout the film is Lucy’s refrain, “What’s wrong with you!?” After awhile, it begins to feel that Durkin simply experienced a failure of the imagination— difficulty conjuring a realistic conversation that might ensue when a woman realizes that her beloved sister has experienced something traumatic.
The sparse dialog contributes to the film being incredibly slow paced. Again, if you have the patience for sparse dialog and slow moving films, these things are not necessarily a problem. But, the slow pace elicits anticipation. It makes you sit on the edge of your seat so you won’t miss when something extraordinary happens (as it feels it must to reward your patience). But nothing extraordinary does happen(with the exception of the murder, but it’s so brief and ancillary it hardly seems enough to warrant the eager anticipation you feel for the movie’s duration.
Just as it makes you expect a riveting climax, a slow paced movie makes you that much more eager and expectant for a riveting resolution. Or a resolution at all. But Martha Marcy May Marlene has no resolution. The final shot is of Martha in the back seat of her sister and brother-in-law’s car, as they’re taking her to a mental institution. An unidentified stranger runs in front of the car, which seems to have no impact greater than temporarily vexing Lucy and Ted. The stranger then gets in his own car and starts driving behind them. The unidentified man may be following them, but given that nothing in the scene suggests this is problematic, it feels inconsequential. Then, rather abruptly, the credits start rolling. Once again, this feels like a failure of Durkin’s imagination. I can hear his interior monolog—“Well, I’m not really sure what should happen next, so let’s just stop the movie here.” And again, considering how patiently I sat through the movie, I felt cheated.
Given the flaws, this certainly isn’t a film that I feel the need to own and watch repeatedly. However, the highlights of the film—the distortion of time, the Manson-esque cult, and Elizabeth Olsen’s performance—certainly make it worthwhile to watch at least once.