Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Dir: Sean Durkin
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Running Time: 102mins
I wonder whether Elizabeth Olsen's decision to accept the lead role in Martha Marcy May Marlene had anything to do with the media's relentless prying into the lives of her celebrity sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley. It seems sardonically appropriate that her star has risen thanks to a movie so intimately concerned with the nature of identity and the uncertainty lying behind many facets of modern existence.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have lived most of their lives staring down a camera, one way or another. Elizabeth, until recently, has largely remained outside the public eye, going about her work diligently and without exploiting her sisters' fame for a quick step-up. Those opposite ends of the modern spectrum are reflected through a dark prism in Martha, where the lead character finds herself trapped between the toxic intimacy of a cult, led by the manipulative misogynist Patrick, and the hollow existence of her married sister at a lavish lakeside retreat in Connecticut.
The film's most subtle and acidic suggestion is that the two are more connected than it might be comfortable to imagine. Both worlds draw people in through fantasies, either of a loving commune or a life of luxury, and only reveal their insidious natures once it is too late. The evils of Patrick's cult are more quickly apparent, although each new girl to arrive under his power is given a settling in period where he and his acolytes slyly and with the pretense of great affection strip away her previous identity. When Martha tells Patrick her name, he immediately responds that she looks more like a Marcy May to him. On the phone, each member is trained to use a generic name: Marlene for the girls. Soon Martha is no more and Patrick has redefined her identity in the image of his fantasy, via increasingly cruel acts of physical and spiritual destruction.
When Martha realises what has happened to her, she makes a bid for escape and is collected by her sister, Lucy. She is taken to the luxurious holiday home owned by Lucy's husband, Ted. Though her psychological issues are very clear from the start, little effort is made by Lucy and Ted to seek appropriate help. Their idea of therapy involves driving a boat around a lake and enjoying the advantages of being a guest in an affluent household. Lucy makes occasional attempts to find out where her sister has been, but appears mainly driven by curiosity and a desire to be the big sister. Ted is increasingly disturbed by Martha's unpredictable behaviour, but only when it starts interfering with his social standing. Like Patrick, they express care when only really acting out of a desire to create or maintain their own sense of validation.
Martha, meanwhile, is condemned to forever suffer for her inability to fit into either lifestyle. She can see through the narcissistic existence that has consumed Lucy and Ted, yet the simple pleasures she hoped for from the rural commune she ran away to join are no less corrupt. Patrick and Ted represent two opposing sides who have pushed to such extremes that they are essentially guided by the same principles. Both obsess over maintaining control of their little societies: Patrick as the leader of his cult, Ted by showing off his riches and being part of the 1% crowd. When Martha escapes Patrick, she finds herself living in the home of someone no less keen to brainwash her. When she briefly considers returning to Patrick, is it solely because he has so successfully weened himself inside her broken psyche, or because the life offered by Ted and Lucy only reminds her of what she ran away from in the first place?
Sean Durkin's film is beautifully structured, moving between the two sections of Martha's life (with Patrick and at Ted's house) with elegant, softly damning fluidity. There's a distinctly '70s feel to the contrasting landscapes and aura of nastiness lingering beneath the beautiful surfaces, reminiscent of the likes of Deliverance, but with the real horrors seen only in the mind's eye. Martha is the film's heart in both narrative and emotional terms, with Olsen playing her as a broken young woman who longed to find some meaning in her life, only to be systematically broken down by everyone she put her trust in. John Hawkes, as Patrick, is no less startling, with his gaunt body disguising deep reserves of bitterness and derangement. No insights are given into the pasts of either he or Martha, but it is in the small details (the way they look, react, control their communication) that Olsen and Hawkes paint a vision of turmoil that has been building for a very long time.
That the film leaves its actors to fill in so many details becomes problematic after a while: because Martha is by her nature a neutral figure, the prize being fought over by Patrick and Ted's respective ideologies, the story doesn't have anywhere to go once its central thesis have been revealed. Patrick's ever more unpleasant methods of exerting control serves to further explain the why of Martha when we rejoin her at Ted's house, but do not progress the story in any way. Once we can see how Ted is being set up as a mirror to Patrick, his interactions with Martha become similarly stagnant, albeit with his character less nuanced and less compelling.
The film remains still for a long time, building tension towards a possible outcome that may only exist in Martha's head, before cutting off almost at the second an answer seems to fall within reach. It's a conclusion that can be justified and is reasonably consistent with the thesis and methods laid out in the preceding 100 minutes, but like Inception, is frustrating for dangling the promise of an answer and not following through, even moreso since the question was never the point to begin with.
As an audience, we know that the battle for Martha's mind cannot be so easily concluded, but once it is suggested the narrative has a definite conclusion, not showing it feels more like a deliberate ploy to create mystery where there doesn't need to be any. (It might be suggested that the writers are trying to make the audience wonder whether they have become as paranoid as Martha, but that doesn't hold up for far too many reasons to detail here). Like its heroine, Martha Marcy May Marlene is fascinating, enigmatic and frustrating, never entirely successful in reconciling the sum of its parts into a fully-rounded whole. [ 7 ]
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