Security of self is an easy thing to take for granted. The sense that despite what may happen outside of you, you know who you are and you know that it is your life you’re living. For those of us who have dealt with depression or anxiety, or experienced the trauma of a panic attack or a nervous breakdown, there’s a stronger sense of how important, and how fleeting that security can be. In a way, it’s everything you have, because it’s one of the only things that can’t be disconnected from who you are. Or I suppose, it is who you are, and that is a terrible thing to lose. An insight deftly examined by Writer/Director Sean Durkin in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
In the middle of the Catskill Mountains, a man named Patrick (John Hawkes) has set himself away from society, gently recruiting a host of handsome young men and beautiful young women to join him in his attempt at a blue collar paradise. One of these young women is named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), though Patrick, and subsequently everyone, has taken to calling her Marcy May. Patrick is a soft-spoken charmer, surrounded by books and women who love him; an impassioned philosopher who says esoteric things like, “Death is beautiful, because we all fear death.” Yet after an extended stay, and in spite of Patrick’s draw, Martha flees one morning, calling her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and coming to stay at her summer house with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). As Lucy attempts to reconcile their schism, Martha comes to understand the difference between leaving a place physically, and leaving a place that has become a part of you.
A well made psychological thriller is far scarier than anything Clive Barker or George Romero ever came up with, because it has so much to do with a reality we understand. It’s not a secret that cults exist, or that people have been manipulated into subverted versions of themselves. And it’s easy to feel separate from that, as though no one, no matter how charming or intelligent, could ever alter your mind without you allowing it. We often think of the victims in these stories as weak, but that’s not the case here, and if we can trust Durkin to have done his homework, surely not true of all cult victims. Martha, or Olsen at least, is clearly possessing of strength, though it seems to have all been stripped away. There was probably a time when Martha would have scoffed at the notion of being brainwashed, but Patrick and the world he has created have done just that, slipping silently into her mind and breaking her down. The way Durkin slowly reveals the depths of Martha’s affliction is one of the film’s true feats; her mania is deep below the surface, and his ability to hold himself back from arriving at any real revelations is nothing if not remarkable. Though we surely catch glimpses of Patrick’s true darkness, it never feels as though we see the full extent of his abuse. There is tension in holding back, and this film is nothing if not tense.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is split between the two worlds of Patrick’s Farm and Lucy’s Summerhouse, allowing Martha and her paranoid dreams to bridge the gap. The farm is a picturesque setting, with its beautiful, white-washed buildings and perpetually youthful tenants. It’s easy to see the draw of the place, and Patrick as well. Though he looks like James Taylor’s skinny little brother, John Hawkes is an intensely commanding presence onscreen. Added to that Durkin’s talent for writing eerily manipulative dialogue, and Patrick is possibly the most interesting character the film has to offer. Though I suppose he must be second to Martha. Elizabeth Olsen is in complete ownership of the role, which, considering her lack of experience is certainly impressive, but would be saying more if Martha had more to do. It’s not that the part is boring, but that the director is so utterly devoted to quiet self-examination, Martha ends up spending a lot of time staring into the distance, replaying her experiences. To an extent, this works effectively; Martha is one of those rare characters who shares her headspace with the audience, effectively telling us her story by showing us her story. That said, this is also a movie where you end up wishing you could hear some of the conversations between the director and his lead actress, if for no other reason than to get a clearer picture of what exactly is going on.
It may be that the distinguishing element of Martha Marcy May Marlene–it’s devotion to fluid storytelling–is also what hurts it in the end. This is a story that deserves an arch, yet doesn’t really have one. Mostly the story strolls along, drifting between Martha’s present and her traumatizing past. Though mountains of character material are provided in these flashbacks, there’s never truly a decisive narrative. And the film ends abruptly, with no clear indication of what the future holds; a mildly interesting, albeit thoroughly frustrating choice. It’s impossible to watch this film without caring about its central character, yet in the end we’re refused the satisfaction of seeing her resolution. So what we have here is a haunting, beautiful character study, and a substantial breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen. It may not be everything it could have been, but what it is is truly something.