Last year, there was a movie called Winter’s Bone. And it was awesome. It was a genuinely gritty noir-ish thriller powered by superb direction and some truly phenomenal actors. Among them were Jennifer Lawrence in the starring role and John Hawkes as her dangerously unpredictable uncle. Both of these previously unknown actors were subsequently propelled into the mainstream, thrust by their amazing Oscar-nominated performances.
Flash forward to over a year later, with the release of Martha Marcy May Marlene (just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?). Here’s another gritty intellectual thriller that largely takes place in the wilderness and just happens to co-star John Hawkes. Oh, and this movie also features the debut of a young up-and-coming actress.
This time, it’s Elizabeth Olsen. Yes, it seems that by churning out crappy kids’ movies, twee TV roles, tabloid-worthy antics, and an ungodly amount of merchandise, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen generously created a distraction so their little sister could get a balanced upbringing away from the public eye.
Olsen’s character goes by many names, all of which are part of the title. She starts out as Martha, a young college-age woman. She then joins a farming commune out in the Catskills, where she is renamed “Marcy May.” She also shares the name of “Marlene” (or “Mike”), which is the name that commune members use when addressing outsiders or potential recruits.
The film opens with a very slow burn, as we spend five minutes watching a day in the peaceful, quiet life of the cult. Yet in spite of the calm and well-ordered proceedings, it’s immediately obvious that something isn’t right. The interactions (or lack thereof) between sexes is definitely a clue.
Anyway, Marcy begins the movie by running away and going into some town in upstate New York. Once there, she gets in touch with her elder sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who’s vacationing at a lake home in Connecticut with her husband (Ted, played by Hugh Dancy).
This is only the first ten minutes of the film or so, but Olsen makes it clear at the outset that she is not fucking around. Though she may try to look poised and calm, Olsen makes it obvious with nothing but raw emotion that her character is completely broken. In everything from how she interacts with people, to how she eats, to how she curls up on a mattress, it’s clear that Martha has grown incapable of living independently in society.
I should also add that on multiple occasions — including once in the first act! — Olsen strips entirely naked for scenes that aren’t remotely sexy or glamorous. It’s a rare actress — especially such a young one — who’s willing to do that and able to present it in a matter that’s 100% devoid of titillation, but Olsen does it. And did I mention that this is her debut feature?
Anyway, Martha is obviously broken and clearly scared of something she either can’t or won’t talk about. This does three things: 1. It immediately makes the character sympathetic, 2. It begs the question of how she got to be this way, and 3. It leaves us wondering how, when, and if she’s going to get better. Yeah, that third part is a considerably huge “if,” which is where most of the film’s tension comes from. It also doesn’t help that the movie puts very little focus on Martha’s recovery.
Instead, the movie bounces between two separate timelines. One is what I like to call the “cause” timeline, which starts with Marcy’s arrival at the commune and follows her devolution as a character. We see Marcy as a victim and/or a participant of subjugation, violence, sexual abuse, and burglary, among other crimes against humanity. The other timeline — the “effect” one — begins with Martha running away. It shows the extent of Martha’s brainwashing, it follows the attempts at rehabilitating her, and it foreshadows certain events and ideas later seen in the “cause” timeline.
There are no title cards or transition effects to show when the film goes from one to the other. Instead, the transitions are often quite cleverly done by way of overlapping actions, visuals, or dialogue. This implies that something in the present reminds Martha of something in the past, which makes the flashbacks that much more immersive. Though this can lead to some momentary confusion, Martha’s locations and emotional states are distinctive enough that it’s easy to quickly tell which timeline is which. Plus, those moments of confusion do that much more to help put us in Martha’s fragile mindset, especially later on.
Really, everything about this movie was carefully and expertly designed to be as disturbing and unsettling as possible. The lighting is moody and loaded with shadows. The camera work and editing (aside from one nauseating shaky-cam shot early on) know exactly how long to hold on something for the purpose of holding tension. The score is cacophonous and the sound design is numb, when either is present. The script is designed in such a way that every curse word, every laugh, and every angry outburst is strategically placed to catch everyone off guard.
Then, of course, there’s John Hawkes.
Hawkes was absolutely the perfect guy to play the cult’s patriarch, though I’m not sure if that’s a compliment. He does a great job of playing charming and charismatic, but let’s be honest: The guy radiates sleaze. It seems like playing psychotic and untrustworthy is second nature to Hawkes by this point, so he naturally does a sickly superb job of making those traits apparent even when Patrick is tending to his
As for Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson, they do a very decent job as the characters who represent the rules and expectations of life outside the cult. The thing about Lucy and Ted is that they have problems of their own, and they only have so much time and effort to spend on a little sister who dropped in from out of the blue after disappearing without a trace two years prior. That isn’t to say that they aren’t trying to help or understand, but there isn’t a lot they can do when Martha has closed herself off so completely. They’re extremely patient with Martha and her lapses in understanding certain social etiquettes, but there’s always the question of how much they can give when Martha isn’t giving anything back.
The big problem with Martha (in the “effect” timeline, anyway) is that she’s caught between worlds. She can’t seem to decide whether she’d want to live in society or in the cult, though it seems like she’d rather do without either one if she could. She’s completely forgotten what life is like in the outside world, though she’s scared to death of going back to the commune (and for damn good reason). In fact, so far as Martha knows, it’s entirely possible that Patrick may send someone to bring her back, making the whole argument moot. This gargantuan amount of internal conflict is exquisitely played by Olsen. It’s a scary situation all-around, which creates a constant source of tension that goes right up until the ending.
Oh, yes. The ending.
In the past, I’ve railed on films that had a ton of set-up and no pay-off. That certainly describes this movie, which ends in one of the most unapologetically ambiguous “WTF?” cliffhangers I can remember seeing. However, this movie gets a pass for one simple reason: It isn’t about the pay-off. From the very outset, the film makes it clear that this isn’t a story about a young woman’s recovery, it’s a story about a young woman’s degradation. The ending doesn’t show Martha’s re-entry into society, but questions if such a readjustment is even possible after all the trauma she went through. The ending is very risky and intellectually challenging for the viewer, but then, so is the rest of the film.
That aside, I only have one other nitpick. At some point in the second act, Martha asks Lucy if she ever had trouble distinguishing dreams from memories. Martha might have used this as a helpful self-delusion, continuing to live under the pretense that her memories of the cult never happened, except that the movie never goes that far. It never mentions the theme anywhere else in the movie, either. The line just sits there, doing nothing.
That nitpick aside, there’s no doubt that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a wonderfully crafted movie, honed to be disturbing in all the right ways. Elizabeth Olsen and writer/director Sean Durkin both make their debuts with this feature, and they both prove right out of the gate that they are talents to be reckoned with. This is a movie that mentally, emotionally, and ethically challenges its audience, and not necessarily with the safety net of a happy ending. I don’t know if that kind of movie is for you, but I can guaran-fucking-tee that this one will stay with you.