“You look like a Marcy May.”
The words themselves are not menacing, but the delivery of the line by John Hawkes as cult leader Patrick suddenly makes the seemingly friendly sentence sound ominous.
It’s this kind of dialogue and performance that exemplifies why Martha Marcy May Marlene is gathering steam as more than just an indie film. Director Sean Durkin carefully crafts a film that takes a subtle yet haunting look into the memory and mind of Martha, an escapee of a violent cult who must grapple with her identity and her future after she finds safe haven in her sister’s home.
Martha is played to perfection by Elizabeth Olsen, who is deserving of the praise she has been gathering since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The up-and-coming little sister of Mary Kate and Ashley is bewitching as the damaged Martha.
Olsen tackles the heavy task of portraying two sides to Martha. In a series of flashbacks, she’s wide-eyed as the first Martha, who reaches out to the cult and became Patrick’s “favorite.” At the same time, Olsen conveys carefully-guarded fear as Martha in the present, who flees the cult in terror and lives paranoid that her former cult “family” will come for her. She gives stiff smiles to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), but also never stops looking over her shoulder.
It’s this second Martha we see most, who struggles with her past and wages a private war over her paranoia and her uncertainty about where her life is headed. After being picked up by Lucy when she runs away from the cult, she must face the question at the heart of the film: What does it mean to have a “normal” life?
Martha tries to answer this question by suppressing her past and attempting to adapt to life with Lucy and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but she doesn’t know how to act properly. In one scene, she quietly walks into Lucy’s bedroom while Lucy and Ted are having sex, and silently lies down next to them. It’s abnormal behavior, but then again, Martha is more damaged than she lets on as she struggles to keep her fear inside.
Paulson and Dancy are well-cast as the well-meaning but ignorant Lucy and Ted. Because they don’t know of her time in the cult, they assume she’s simply immature and irresponsible, adding to Martha’s confusion.
Visually, the film is stunning, as Lucy and Ted’s isolated vacation home provides a striking and serene backdrop of mountains and lakes that sharply contrast the torment in Martha’s mind. Durkin is careful in his shots, focusing on the fresh-faced Olsen, capturing details in Hawkes’s wrinkled smile, yet still instills a sense of fear throughout the film, putting the audience in Martha’s mind.
The ending of the film is particularly fascinating with its ambiguity, which will most likely polarize audiences. Because of this, it’s important to note that Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a film for a casual audience, as it delves deep into Martha’s mind and slowly reveals her struggles, without many plot points. But for audiences seeking a subtle yet powerful portrayal of psychological twists and turns, the film is a thought-provoking experience with its layers of emotions and hundreds of questions raised.