Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a young naive girl named Martha who escapes a Manson family-type cult and struggles to go back to living like a regular human being.
The film opens with scenes from a quiet communal farm that could be called idyllic if the people didn’t look so derelict. Young strapping men are at work fixing up the farm while bedraggled girls sit around doing womanly domestic things like hanging up the laundry and cooking. At dinner, we see the women serving the men first while they crowd in their rickety kitchen, waiting for their turn. Its all very Mormon. That is, if Mormons had crazy sex orgies with multiple partners on their commune (yup, there’s one of those later).
Martha wakes up one morning and runs away into the woods. The ‘family’ chases after her, but she makes it into town. She’s tracked there by one of the young men. He offers to take her home, but she refuses. He leaves her, saying “take care of yourself,” which feels almost like a veiled threat.
This is one of the hallmarks of Martha Marcy May Marlene (I’m just gonna call it M4 now because I can’t remember the order of the names without Googling it). Everything seems calm and quietly pleasant on the surface, but there always seems to be something uneasy roiling beneath. Sean Durkin, the director, did a beautiful job of capturing the stillness of every scene, allowing the often shocking content to stand on its own. Half the time, you almost don’t understand what you’re seeing until its over – it’s as if you’re seeing it all through the fresh, naive eyes of Martha.
Martha is picked up by her older sister, Lucy, who takes her home to the holiday lake-house she shares with her husband, Ted. Played by Sarah Paulson and the delicious Mr Claire Danes, Lucy and Ted are the ultimate 21st Century Yuppies. Martha struggles to assimilate herself to their lifestyle, doing and saying a number of strange things that discomfit the Yuppie Couple. For example, Martha doesn’t understand why only the two of them live in such a spacious house, or why it’s not okay to swim in the nude.
Or, why its not okay to come into the room and lay down on the bed when your yuppie sister and her husband are boinking.
Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen (yes, sister to Mary Kate & Ashley of bag-lady fashion fame). Baby Olsen delivers a STUNNING performance as Martha. She projects both maturity and purity simultaneously. She is magnetic. And god, her voice is so lush. She reminds me of Carey Mulligan in An Education. YES, I am putting that out there. Elizabeth Olsen is THAT good. She’s got her tits out an awful lot though. I suppose that’s how you’re meant to know that this is a *serious art film*. Maybe if it had been deployed a bit less freely, it might’ve been okay. It made me feel really dirty seeing Baby Olsen’s boobs. But then again, that was probably the point.
Another notable mention is John Hawkes as Patrick. No one could’ve embodied the charisma and the menace that he somehow projects so organically. He’s frighteningly seductive. Like, you’re totally freaked out because you could see how you would fall under his spell.
The beauty of M4 was how it seems to drift seamlessly between the past, the present, and her paranoia. You’re never quite sure if the cult is after her, or if it’s all in her head. You’re never sure of what will trigger Martha’s memories. And as much as this is marketed as a thriller, don’t go in expecting blaring horns and tense orchestral strings. The peaceful quiet is what sets your hairs on end.
You go, Sean Durkin.
ps. I wish I could be snarkier (and more entertaining), but I refuse to treat M4 with the least bit of disrespect. Its a stunner.
pps. I know you’re super curious to know where Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene come from. The trailer kinda reveals two of them, but I guess you’ll just have to watch to find out the third! Muahaha!
Go see it (if you haven’t already, you uncultured buffoon)!
BONUS – Here’s some classic Carey, whom I love greatly and dearly: