(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
With some free time on my hands I was able to watch Martha Marcy May Marlene yesterday afternoon. It was a long time coming. The first time I heard about it was on A Damn Movie Podcast while traveling through Arizona last February.
The film’s star, Elizabeth Olsen, was singled out by the co-hosts, particularly because she is the younger sister of über-famous socialites Mary-Kate and Ashley. They were absolutely blown away by her talent and hoped that her career would eventually eclipse her older siblings’, who- lets face it- aren’t contributing that much art, beauty or anything worthwhile to society (just scandals I suppose… sigh). One of the podcast’s soundbites stuck with me for months: “If their little sister comes out of nowhere as this totally legitimate, incredible actress that would be the best universal justice on the planet.”
Well, I am now official believer of that statement. I think it has already happened and will continue as long as Olsen plays her cards right. Marlene is an absorbing, somewhat difficult and chilling film that leaves you uneasy. All of this is anchored by her performance, and yes, it really seems like she has literally come out of nowhere.
For those who don’t know the story, Marlene follows a young girl named Martha (Olsen) after she escapes a cult in the Catskill Mountains. She takes refuge with her tightly-wound sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy) in a rented lake house. Over the next three weeks it becomes apparent that something is psychologically wrong with her. She has no sense of boundaries. She has no interest in being polite. She also has no grasp of time or place, culminating with a line where she asks: “Did you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory of it’s something you dreamed?”
This becomes reflected in the structure of the film. Like Martha we soon have trouble distinguishing time and place. Her weeks at the lake house begins to seamlessly alternate with her memories of her life before. There is a particular emphasis on the cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, who tackles the character with a charismatic finesse) and Martha’s prophet-disciple relationship with him. The relationship is also sexual and possessive. Patrick seems obsessed with her and a younger member of the cult, Watts (Brady Corbet), is fixated as well.
The troubling thing is that Martha gives of herself to these men and their ideals without hesitation or complaint. However, the fallout from her choices terrify her. She becomes less of a human being and more of an asset or some kind of possession to them. At one point Patrick holds to her and says, “You’re my favorite. I won’t lose you.” Although he doesn’t see Martha’s reaction to this, we do. Her face becomes as study of fear and regret.
If Martha is indeed a possession the threat of being re-claimed drives the rest of the story. It hovers over each situation like an ax waiting to be dropped. There is a quiet in the way director Sean Durkin chooses to handle this, something I would term “post-traumatic chill.” The silence and spaces in the scenes only increase the tension, punctuated only by the inevitable arguments and blow-ups you’d expect.
However, the emotional core of this effort is Olsen, and Durkin lovingly frames her in a way that reminds me of Sofia Coppola, another director obsessed with the image of the female body at rest. Olsen portrays Martha as someone who has been carelessly emptied, a vessel with no values or opinions of her own. She has little control over what she says, how she behaves and- in some cases- even her own body. It seems that most of her time is spent sleeping because it’s all she is capable of. She has forgotten how to be an autonomous human being.
These are all symptoms of serious post-traumatic stress, and having no grasp of reality and time only compounds how lost Martha has become. As the plot unravels the scenes become harder and harder to discern from one another, tipping us into her headspace. It’s a disorienting and uncomfortable place to be, and when the ending arrives it is eerie and unforgiving.
There has been some press on the complicated nature of the film’s title. It turns out that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a chronological list of names Martha uses to identify herself. As she breaks down it becomes apparent she has no idea who she is and can’t reconcile herself with what she is capable of. She also doesn’t know what she wants or what is truly good for her.
In the end, neither do we. It’s a sad predicament.