Saturday 14 December 2019

Movie review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

A psychological drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene delves into the shadows hanging over the troubled psyche of a cult survivor.

Deep in the Catskill Mountains, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a commune and sex cult consisting of young men and women under the influence of creepy leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who granted her the name Marcy May, and his sidekick Watts (Brady Corbet). Martha makes it to the posh lakefront Connecticut vacation home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is married to architect Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Martha and Lucy have a strained relationship, and the peace and quiet Ted craves at his vacation sanctuary is disrupted by Martha's unsettling presence and unconventional behaviour. In flashback Martha's experiences at the commune are revealed, including her increasing attachment to Patrick and the commune's involvement in criminal activity. It becomes clear to Lucy her sister is going to need professional help, but Patrick may not be ready to accept Martha's departure.

Featuring a brooding mood and a haunting debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sombre experience. Martha's odd and argumentative behaviour at Lucy's house, including public nudity, nonchalantly walking in on Lucy and Ted during lovemaking, and a psychotic episode of mistaken identity, lay bare the reality that while she has physically escaped Patrick's cult, the damage lingers deep within her.

And she is not quite sure where she belongs. In the cold and mostly empty lakeside house Martha starts longing for the familiar comforts of the cramped commune, where similarly lost souls looked out for each other and kept warm at night sleeping in the same room. Her phone calls back to the commune are juxtaposed with flashbacks of the crimes Patrick is capable of inspiring, and suddenly Lucy's house may no longer be a safe haven.

Director and writer Sean Durkin is more interested in a slow reveal of Martha's troubled history rather than any character evolution. He builds unease by progressively exposing the horrors beneath the surface of a group of young adults supposedly living off the land. Patrick is the classic egotistical manipulator using psychobabble and veiled threats to control others and satisfy his twisted needs. While Martha's life chapter before the commune remains vague, her rebellious nature clearly led her down the wrong path.

And just as the pre-commune origins are skipped, the postscript is also left open. Martha Marcy May Marlene is concerned with the young survivor's middle chapters. Her bad decisions past and present are never far away, and neither are the dreadful consequences.

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