It’s surprising how the soundtrack of a trailer can shape your expectations of a film. After watching the above trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene, I was convinced that I would be watching a fast paced, suspense driven thriller rather than a pensive, social commentary that is more haunting than fear inducing. Martha Marcy May Marlene may sound like a childish chant teenagers utter in a dark bathroom in front of a mirror on Halloween but there is much more to this seemingly urban legend in this 101 minute dreamlike tale of restrictions, innocence and identity than meets the eye.
Elizabeth Olsen (yes, she’s the younger sister of the Olsen twins but will more than surpass their claim to Hollywood) makes her breakthrough debut playing Martha, a young woman who escapes from a modern day bohemian commune with a dark resemblance to a cult before contacting her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who immediately takes her in despite the questions from her rich, successful husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). We watch as Martha attempts to adapt to the world outside of the life she’s known for two years in a hazy, dream like account of events in which we witness Martha’s interpretation of what happened to her in those missing years and its affects on her in what is perceived to be normal culture.
A lot happens in the film without much happening at all. We see events from Martha’s past where the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) turns an innocent, fun loving girl into a paranoid, hippy shell of a woman called Marcy May. These events become progressively darker and more sinister as the film goes on but due to the story telling device, things Martha says and her apparent lack of self control, it is hard to know exactly what is real, what is exaggerated and if what we see is founded by truth at all. Due to this form of narrative, the comment behind the story is not about cults themselves, but individuals, restrictions and mental anguish.
It is also the fact that life with Lucy and Ted is just as restrictive as life with Patrick but the notions of love, social normality and sanity are so ingrained in our heads that we don’t see them as restrictions at all – merely normal behaviour.
It’s the sort of film that would really benefit a second watch as I am sure I missed a lot of the subtlety and possibly some of the more fear inducing moments. What a single watch does produce is a vast amount of questions that are never answered. It is very much a film about these two fixed points in Martha’s life (whether the past is reality or her interpretation of reality) leaving the past as much of a question as the future. We get hints of Martha’s life with Lucy before the cult but even the information we are given is unconvincing and laced with secrets and the future is given about as much detail which in itself echoes the values of Patrick and the lessons he taught Martha.
In all, it is a moving, tense, social commentary that keeps a steady pace due to the clever writing of Sean Durkin where he asks two more questions before the previous is answered. It’s a little confusing to watch due to the crossed time lines unless you’re paying full attention but even when you ask “is that the past or the present?” it resonates with the state in which Martha’s mind is currently in.