Martha Marcy May Marlene takes a look at a modern-day Manson family, and one girl’s attempt to break free. But you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of her head, leading poor little M4 to increasingly outrageous acts of paranoia and terror. But an overwhelming abundance of brilliant performances can’t make up for leaden, choppy storytelling and an ending that makes the final scene from The Sopranos seem like a tidy little package.
Poor little rich girl Martha, with a drinking problem and an older sister that doesn’t seem to care about her. What’s a girl to do? Join a cult, apparently. I say apparently because in this film you’re never really sure why she ends up with this mini-Manson group. The film starts with her fleeing the compound, then her story is told in cuts from “present day” to life on the compound. When cult leader Patrick — a compellingly sinister John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) — first meets Martha he decides she’s really Marcy May, which is the first tick that lets us know that all is not right on this compound o’ love. Bit by bit she assimilates into the cult as her personality, virginity and morality is stripped away. However, when she witnesses a jarring act of violence she has just enough sanity left to make a run for it. When her sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) takes in Martha, Lucy assumes her sister will “be good as new tomorrow”. But Lucy and her husband Ted (played by indie darling Hugh Dancy) have no idea what Martha has been through, and that Martha’s brainwashing has left her with psychological scars that are hard-wired into her psyche, leaving Martha spiralling downward.
That the actors in Martha Marcy May Marlene all deliver amazing, mesmerizing performances is without question. Each one inhabits his or her character with a realism that is breathtaking and in some instances terrifying. But the story takes a far distant second place, leaving so many questions unanswered that it’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in the action. The actors do their best, but without a firm background story this movie is only so many wonderful performances on screen, instead of a riveting tale. I really wanted to know how Martha ended up in this cult, and what had caused her relationship with her family to break down to such a degree that a whacked-out group of hippies in the woods seemed like a viable life option. Writer/director Sean Durkin takes his first spin as director of a feature length film with this film, and so I’d be willing to forgive much if this movie didn’t feel like such a startling waste of amazing talent.
There are glimpses of the movie that this could have been; a scene with Martha, Lucy and Ted at the dinner table that hints at the motivations and histories of the characters. When Ted asks Martha what she plans on doing with her life and Martha that she doesn’t plan on doing anything, this leads to a discussion about values and class prejudice that is tantalizing in it’s intensity. Martha’s hypocrisy — saying people could live on their own while living off her sister and Ted — could have led to a fascinating look at the motivations of each of these characters. Unfortunately the scene ends before anything truly gripping presents itself.
The chemistry between actors here is remarkable; Paulson and Olsen give off a realistic dysfunctional sibling vibe that anyone with a family can relate to. And Olsen herself is a powerhouse; with perfomrances like this pretty soon it won’t be “Elizabeth Olsen, Mary-Kate and Ashley’s sister”, but “Elizabeth Olsen’s sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley”. Elizabeth’s performance here is haunting and absolutely riveting. Pity the movie doesn’t live up to it. It’s as if Durkin was himself so immersed in the tale that he couldn’t see the gaps in the story. A rookie mistake easily made but even easier to correct if he’d had people behind the scenes that gave him input (or if he’d listened to input if any had been given.) And for the record, Marlene seems to be tacked on to the title of this film, since it refers to an unrelated bit character in the cult compound. Just another strange quirk in a movie full of ’em.
You remember the cool kid from school, that off-putting hipster that would end every conversation about music/movies/books with “well, you just don’t get it”. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the movie version of that hipster. But that’s not because viewers aren’t cool enough, it’s that this movie didn’t try hard enough. Kudos to Durkin for surrounding himself with amazing talent, next time I hope he’ll dig up a bit more for himself.