After seeing writer/director Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But not in the way or for the reasons that usually excite me. Instead, I was thinking about the film because after sitting through a little over 90 minutes of an interesting, if a little creepy at times, well-acted character study, the end abruptly arrived and I had no idea what happened. I won’t say any more about what occurs (or doesn’t) at the end, but it left me feeling unsettled, confused and not just a little bit like I’d been duped.*
Martha Marcy May Marlene looks at what happens to Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) when she leaves the cult commune on which she’d been living for two years. She reenters the real world by staying with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Interspersed with present-day goings on are flashbacks to Martha’s time in the cult, when she was called Marcy May. While there, we see Marcy May interact with the cult’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), as well as the other “converted” women and some seemingly lost boys.
I actually found the back and forth structure to be interesting, as it allowed us to discover things about Martha over time. Attentive viewers are rewarded when a seed planted in the first act blooms in the third. I like this because, in my view, this is a film asking more of its audience than to be idle viewers. And with this particular film, it seemed to work because the pace at which details were revealed helped to keep Martha an enigma, which helped to keep me engaged. (The non-linear storytelling also helps to express Martha's confusion as she reenters the world.)
Also helping to keep me engaged were great performances from all. John Hawkes did creepy loner very well in last year’s overrated Winter’s Bone. Here, he offers a variation: the charming, charismatic creep. Mind you, Hawkes’s Patrick is not creepy to the harem of girls he’s collected on his commune, but to outsiders his behavior is despicable and horrific at worst, and creepy and reprehensible at best.
Sarah Paulson (good on stage two years ago in Collected Stories, and also a Studio 60 alumna) and Hugh Dancy (of the incredibly powerful Venus in Fur) make a good pair as the adult figureheads who try to help Martha get back into the groove of real life. Paulson’s face reveals that Lucy is trying so hard to be strong but inside she’s a wreck, trying to figure out what happened to her sister, if she was responsible and how she can help. Dancy, meanwhile, succeeds in showing Ted as compassionate, but not a pushover. Because Dancy expertly plays a natural progression of emotions, his Ted is able to blow up and yell at Martha and not come off as the villain.
Tackling the role of Martha is relative newcomer Elizabeth Olsen. (I'm loath to mention her lineage because she's good in her own right, but I feel obliged to mention that she is the younger sister of twin stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.) It’s kind of difficult to pin point just what makes her performance so good, which I think makes it even better. Olsen has a wholesome looking face with big eyes (she looks like a cross between Maggie Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga), and she seems to simply embody the soul of this sweet, not so innocent and very confused girl. Though she doesn’t have much dialogue, Olsen says plenty her body language, even with just a slight quiver of the lip.
The more I think about this film, the more I like everything except the end, which makes the ending all the more infuriating. (If you’ve see this film, leave your thoughts about the ending in the comments section below. I’m curious to know your take.) Martha Marcy May Marlene garnered a lot of attention at Sundance, where it premiered earlier this year. And it’s been getting great buzz since then. I have a feeling it has mostly to do with Olsen’s performance, which is likely to be remembered come award season. If plot’s your thing, steer clear. But if you’re looking for an intriguing character study with standout performances, this is it.
*After reading this interview with writer/director Durkin, and reflecting on his insight to the ending, I'm less infuriated by the ending. Instead, I understand its place in the film, and it seems more appropriate. Still, I don't love the fact that I needed footnotes in order to understand and enjoy the film.