There’s something inherently terrifying about the past, whether the memories embedded within it are pleasant or horrifying. The dynamics of the past—some holding onto it, some trying to forget it, some that can’t let it go—are part of what makes the entire experience of remembering so resonant. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is on the run from her past, a polygamous free love and farming cult in upstate New York led by the two-sided Patrick played by John Hawkes, who recalls his work in last years Winter’s Bone. Martha doesn’t have much of a family, so she spends time adjusting back to reality with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their upscale vacation home in Connecticut.
One of the film’s central questions is relayed from Matha to her sister, asking if she ever has trouble telling the difference between a dream and reality. The film’s narrative structure, readily jumping between Martha’s past in the cult and her present attempt to return to normalcy, is a constant reflection of this state of confusion. As Martha attempts to reacquaint herself to a world outside of the cult, there are visual parallels of her strange past. Her jump into a Connecticut lake is drawn back to skinny-dipping off a cliff with the cult. Her mixing of a sedative into a drink so that a new girl in the group can become docile for Patrick’s pleasure is matched with her twirling a spoon in a glass of water at the table in the Connecticut.
Though this back and forth can feel like useless posturing, it’s this slow burn means of informing that helps to understand Martha’s emotional and social distance. Her strange behavior in her new life, jumping in the lake naked or crawling into bed with Lucy and Ted while they make love, becomes a chilling indication of how suppressed her feelings and sense of self have become. Within the cult a sense of caring and love was unquestioned because everyone contributes to the group in some way and many of them share the same rites of passage—rites Martha is convinced are done out of loving care and not sadistic abuse.
Central to the film’s shifting levels of audience sympathy is Olsen’s breakout performance as Martha—yes, the younger and until now essentially unknown sister to Mary Kate and Ashley. Though one can pigeonhole her work as the typical edgy, indie-darling performance with all the rape and nudity trappings, Olsen’s emotive work ensures that it’s much more than merely a daring role and one that may net the newcomer an Oscar nomination. Writer-director Sean Durkin has some trouble finding footing behind piercing silences and scenes where actors chew the scenery in his debut film but gives Olsen plenty to work with as the woman in peril. Within the cult Olsen gives Martha a puppy-eyed sense of curiosity with a sporadic hesitance to accept the group’s ideals. Within her family life, Olsen ratchets up the worry, her face lined with the paranoia of being watched and followed by the group she has abandoned. Because Durkin and the narrative confuse whether her fear is justified or frivolous, Olsen’s performance feels layered in conjunction. Are the noises on the Connecticut roof at night pinecones falling or the rocks the cult used to throw on the roofs of homes before they invaded them?
The aforementioned question is one reason the jumping within structure works so well as the film progresses, but also why it begins to drag and lack some cohesiveness. Durkin plays well on audience expectations with shots that disorient sense of time and place but eventually begins inserting needless filler that seems to only serve as a means to show the depravity of the cult without providing any discernable substance for their actions. In other words, Durkin drifts away from the love and love attitude the cult fosters on the surface for weird for the sake being weird motivations underneath. Casting Hawkes as Patrick is inspired as his face recalls Charles Manson—but tying their cult to Manson merely for senseless behavior rings somewhat hollow. If Durkin were trying to draw this parallel more vividly, he could have made these inconsistent acts in the films final quarter feel more meaningful.
Durkin’s lens is in undeniable love with Olsen as Martha: within group shots she is centered, lengthy takes focus on her contemplative face and one close up while she cleans floors plants her cleavage directly in the foreground. Because of the shots close proximity, the question of time and place once again comes into play—though others will see it as one of many visuals that serve as misogynistic objectification’s of Olsen, and both sides are right in some measure. Despite two vastly different environments, the backwoods and farmland of central/upstate New York versus the posh waterfront digs of Connecticut, Durkin has a flair that draws them together and apart.
Both have openness to them, but in different ways. In New York the cult’s togetherness is surrounded by desolate woods, yet the initial step for Martha towards freedom is eating at a diner in the connected town, one where the group sells items to get by. When Martha strips on the lake in Connecticut, Lucy warns of peeping neighbors on houses that surround the water. There’s something strange about how civilization feels so close to Martha in New York yet so far in the supposed comfort of civilized Connecticut. When Martha and Ted sprawl over the necessities of material life and making a living for yourself, the disconnect between the two halves of Martha’s life truly comes forward, one that’s aided by Durkin’s consistent styling between two different places—places that are more divided by emotion for Martha than they are by distance and resources.
The relevance of the grim and dark foundations for Martha’s displacement in Martha Marcy May Marlene will vary widely from viewer to viewer. For everyone unnerved by Olsen’s depiction of the girl desperately searching for a place to call home and people to call family, others will be turned off by the film’s languid pacing and incessant attempts to rationalize Martha’s state through more and more sinister means. I grappled with the film’s strengths and weaknesses in varying degrees but found myself coming back to the question of how we deal with our past and the fog that clouds our distinction between dreams and reality. Even if Durkin lays Martha’s trauma on thick, Olsen gives the character the dimensions needed to ensure the film stays relevant, its subtle effectiveness lingering on long after the haunting final frames have flickered. But then that scary question echoes again—what’s real and what isn’t in Martha Marcy May Marlene anyway?