Told through a series of flashbacks, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a tearaway who, for two years, has been living with a cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes); a man susceptible to spouting meaningless proverbs, wooing his nubile intake with soulful crooning and forcing himself upon them as part of their initiation. When we meet Martha, the honeymoon period appears to be well and truly over and, in the early morning, she’s run away from the cult’s Catskill Mountains home and into the forgiving arms of her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson); who is living a rather comfortable existence with her fiance, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
The title reflects the fragmented nature of Martha now that she’s back under the wing of loved ones. Through conversations between the siblings, Martha is pictured to have been a disgruntled teenager, never really forgiving Lucy for leaving her with their abusive, dying mother, whilst she got on with starting a new life at college. We only ever meet this pre-indoctrinated Martha once via one of the aforementioned flashbacks. This ghost of Martha is in complete contrast to the person who now frequents her sister’s house. Fragile and introvert, this is ‘Marcy May’, a name given to her by the cult.
The first half of the film deals with Martha trying to return to a normal way of life. Like a prisoner re-entering society, Martha struggles to acclimatize, falling back into cult ways of coping. One night, Martha sneaks into her sisters room, snuggling up to her whilst she’s in mid-copulation with her boyfriend. All normal reasoning having long since departed, Martha can’t explain her actions beyond the fact that close proximity helps her sleep. The second half sees paranoia creep up on Martha as she begins to suspect that Patrick and his disciples are out there in the wilderness. Whether they really are or not is left to the decision of the viewer.
Olsen is superb and effortlessly plays out the mental breakdown of Martha without resorting to the wide-eyed, strumming fingers over lips techniques that others use. Hawkes, as her former lover and leader, is charmingly creepy in a way that doesn’t make you question why anybody would stay under his spell.
Sean Durkin’s direction is simple and yet masterful. The film’s constant switching between the past and present lends itself to a presentation of cause and effect. We see Martha’s ‘unexplainable’ behaviour through the eyes of her family, but we, along with our protagonist, are the only ones who understand why it’s happening. Unable or unwilling to tell the truth of what’s happened to her, we become complicit in the lies and can only watch as big sister waves back to a Martha who is clearly drowning.
Some will want the ending brought to task, but this really should only be a minor quibble. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an exploration on memory, abuse and relationships that rewards the viewer by lodging itself deep within the mind.