Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
Movies about people who succumb to manipulators or cults always come with the added benefit of third-party perspective where viewers can watch characters be seduced and swayed with an appropriate level of moral outrage, or at the very least an empowering insistence that they would never themselves be fooled. But Martha Marcy May Marlene succeeds in making its audience understand both how and why the young woman whose four names make up the film’s title could have fallen prey to a group of pastoralists whose supposedly rule-free refuge is every bit as controlling and problematic as the society from which they purport to escape. Moreover, it provides a remarkably lucid portrait of a person coming to terms with a life-altering experience that they seem to know they shouldn’t be a part of, but aren’t sure they know exactly how to leave.
Although writer-director Sean Durkin doesn’t explicitly judge the denizens of the rural farm where Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes a worker-bee concubine, and in fact never uses the word “cult” at any time, he highlights the ominousness of their authority in the opening scenes, in which Martha flees the farm while everyone else sleeps. When a search party catches up with her at a nearby diner, envoy Watts (Brady Corbet) remains unthreatening even though it’s pretty clear he knows what she’s trying to do; and when she recoils at his demonstration of affection, he instructs her, calmly and firmly, “don’t do that.” It’s precisely this tone which dominates most of her interactions with the other members of the community, and it’s what creates a palpable air of unease and uncertainty as Martha is slowly reintroduced to the rest of the world.
Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) clearly seems accustomed to holding the family together, or in lieu of that, keeping things cheerful and conflict-free. When her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) asks about Martha, Lucy says, “she seems okay,” but she most definitely isn’t; the question is, is she trying to reassure him, herself, or somehow project a perception of normalcy that will somehow become a reality? Martha looks tired and seems scared, and doesn’t seem reassured even when Lucy tells her they’re hours away from where she picked Martha up. But what’s fascinating is how Lucy’s care initially feels as oppressive as we might expect a cult’s to, while the flashback sequences of her introductions at the farm feel warm and welcoming and perfectly accepting. And simultaneously, there’s an inversion of behavior and motive between the two environments, as Lucy clearly loves Martha and sincerely means well, while even in the most non-confrontational language, the farm’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), is clearly trying to ensnare her via emotional manipulation.
For example, as Martha is slowly introduced to the routine around the farm, she’s told that “in a new family, it takes time to find your role,” and Patrick instructs her friend Zoe (Louisa Krause) to give her care “for once in her life.” Our expectation would be that they were angrily convincing her that the outside world is evil – that some eloquently-articulated rhetoric would make her a willing convert to their peaceful way of life. But what Patrick and his disciples are doing is giving her ownership of her own vulnerability, and deceiving her into believing that she’s becoming empowered. During another scene, Patrick singles her out during an otherwise lighthearted gathering and intensely observes, “people have abandoned you your whole life. Let your guard down – we want to help you.” There’s no indication that she has revealed many details about her family history, but Patrick is tapping into Martha’s sense of victimization – that she’s been aimless or carefree because of other people’s behavior, not her own – and in a fairly brilliant way, he’s suggesting that the only obstacle to the seeming joy that everyone else is experiencing is herself, and that she’s therefore capable of achieving it, if of course she does what they tell her to do.
Amazingly, their seduction is complete not when she simply agrees with them, but when they commit an act of physical violation that she is convinced – and eventually she convinces herself – is one of love, trust and intimacy. She awakens in the night to discover that she’s being sodomized by Patrick, and it’s at once intimate and incredibly invasive, precisely the sort of act that if appropriately contextualized in this world can be seen as a virtuous rite of passage. Afterward, her friend Zoe tells her to smile and yearns to experience her “first time” again. How can Martha not think it was in fact a terrible act? The fact that she later confesses to a friend “he’s right about me – I don’t know why I’m so weak” only evidences her conversion, or perhaps her immersion, in this community where she eventually becomes just another disciple who’s complicit in protecting Patrick’s patriarchal control.
At the same time, Durkin manages to reveal the extent of her submission to Patrick’s will more in her moments shared with Lucy and Ted than while actually living in the community. A morning or two after she’s arrived, she asks why their house is so big, given that there’s only two of them; while it’s almost a childlike question, it speaks to more than just the difference in the number of inhabitants between her current residence and her previous one. Also, it’s an indication of her slowly shedding the layers of judgment imposed on the outside world that kept her protected – and simultaneously imprisoned – at the farm, where everyone shares clothes and sleeps ten to a room.
Later, however, it becomes clear that she’s battling against the programming of the farm, even as she emerges from its influence. After Ted inquires into Martha’s future plans, she retaliates with language that could have come right out of Patrick’s mouth: “It’s not your fault,” she says. “You’ve been taught to measure success by money in possessions.” Ted, perhaps rightfully, gets outraged at her self-righteousness, but what we see that he doesn’t is her self-defense, her almost subconscious effort to justify the time and effort and emotion she committed to believing in Patrick’s worldview, and what acts she committed in its service. She’s clearly battling her past for control of her present, and at the same time she’s been so thoroughly immersed in this anti-establishment view of the world that it’s almost like she’s trying to convince herself that she was right to embrace it. As she re-enters conventional society, she’s rudderless, and holding onto those beliefs gives her an anchor that protects her from dealing with the “outside” world.
Durkin also depicts her disorientation visually, as almost a representation of dueling philosophies. At the beginning of the film, Martha’s escape from the farm is shot handheld, but as much as that simply creates cinematic tension it’s representative of her mindset at that time, since she’s disillusioned and unable to have a consistent or stable sense of the world and her place in it. Later, there’s a shot of Ted running near their house, and the camera is mostly steady, smooth and controlled – a representation not just of the world that he lives in, but the comfort he has in the world around him. And as she finds herself in that world but constantly not a part of it, Durkin handles her scenes with an off-center and discomfiting framing that often leaves her alone in shots or otherwise in less control of her environment than other characters.
Ultimately what works best in the film is not just communicating this sense of mystery or uncertainty, but giving the audience that feeling as well. The film’s final shots are of Martha, swimming alone as she notices a man watching her from the other side of the lake. She quickly gets out and runs off, but it seems like she, Lucy and Ted almost run into him with their car as they begin to make the trek into civilization, by this point an embodiment of hope and redemption for the troubled young woman. The mystery man gets in his car and begins to follow, but is he really following them? Or is his appearance pure coincidence? Regardless of the answer (which is never concretely provided), Martha is left in the back seat of that car wondering if she’s going to be kidnapped and brought back to the place she was so determined to escape, and we’re left wondering if we’ve bought into her paranoia or this in fact is a happy ending (or for this film, a close facsimile) we’ve convinced ourselves won’t come to pass.
Sadly, there aren’t a lot of films about characters discovering how to make up their minds that don’t force the viewer to do the same. But Martha Marcy May Marlene is a foreboding, provocative drama, and all the more effective because it manages to avoid being clear in exactly what it’s saying while being crystal clear in exactly how it’s saying it.