29 January 2012

Me, Myself & Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin's first feature film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is deeply unsettling, tense and compelling. Lead actress Elizabeth Olsen, in her movie debut, plays Martha (also known as Marcy May and, more rarely, Marlene), a troubled young woman who, at the start of the movie, is seen escaping from a cult and returning to live with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their lavish lake house. We don't yet know why she has decided to leave or why the cult members appear to have let her go, but as Martha spends more time with Lucy and Ted, it soon becomes clear that although she has physically escaped, she is still deeply traumatised by what happened.

The full story of what prompted Martha to join this idealistic but violent and sexist group in the first place remains uncertain--we just know why she was vulnerable (her mother had died, her father had abandoned her and Lucy was at college). But through a series of Martha's flashbacks and dreams, a bigger picture of what happened to Martha develops. The leader of the group, Patrick (John Hawkes), is charismatic and compassionate. He makes the group members feel special and although they tend to share their bodies with all the others, the women are all happiest when they are sharing Patrick's bed. The cult is very anti-materialist and they are trying to be self-sustainable, but this means only eating one meal a day, in the evening, and even then, the women are only allowed to eat once the men have had their fill. Initially, Martha likes life on the farm but the more time she spends there, the more she must contribute: she must help indoctrinate a new recruit into the cult's activities, including a horrific initiation ritual, and, later, she must help the group with their night-time escapades, which become increasingly violent and extreme.

Lucy and Ted want to help but Martha won't let them in. She doesn't tell them about the cult, making up a lie about living with a boyfriend upstate and trying to act normal. But she doesn't really understand how "normal" people behave any more. She asks inappropriate questions (on spotting her sister's wedding ring: "is it true that married people don't fuck?") and she enters Lucy and Ted's bedroom while they are having sex because she is upset. She says things that, as the film progresses, we learn she has been trained to say. "I am a teacher and a leader!" she tells Lucy fiercely at one point. Patrick, it transpires, has drummed this into her head. She hears noises at night and is constantly afraid that the cult will come and "rescue" her and potentially hurt her family. She confuses dreams and reality, calling Lucy "mom" at one point, and "Katie" (one of the cult members) on another occasion.

Martha can't trust her sister enough to let her in but nor does Lucy really understand her sister. On the day she picks up Martha from the bus station, having previously taken a hysterical phone call from Martha, it is obvious that something isn't right but when Ted asks Lucy if her sister is OK, she says that Martha seems fine. Later, Ted and Lucy don't seem to know what to do with her and as her behaviour becomes even more erratic and troubled, instead of getting her to talk to a professional, their solution is much more radical. And if Martha can't depend on her family, on whom can she depend?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is all about the power of identity. Patrick takes Martha's name ("I think you look like a Marcy May") and then her virginity as part of the "cleansing process." He takes her individuality too and her preconceptions. But after she leaves, she struggles to reinvent herself as the girl she used to be and is left pretending to be someone she isn't and someone she doesn't want to be, which makes you wonder whether she is any safer with her sister and Ted than she was with Patrick and co. Elizabeth Olsen is great--all cheekbones and big blank eyes. Ambiguous endings are fairly standard in this kind of film but for this one, it felt appropriate. I was certainly gripped to the bitter, chilling end and it took a good few minutes for my heart rate to slow back down, as I imagined what might have happened next.

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