He plays Patrick, the leader of a rural cult in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Catskills, whose kind and understanding way with his subjects belies a dangerous predilection for moral, behavioural and sexual control. His command centre is a farmhouse, in which males and females are segregated during meal times and sleeping times, and a social hierarchy is observed. The women are also put to work in the surrounding fields, where they plant crops in order to be self-sufficient through living off the land.
The isolatory nature of the cult isn’t absolute rule though, as we see protagonist Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) successfully escape into the surrounding woods in the opening scene, pursued by one of the cult-hands (Brady Corbet). When he eventually catches up with her in a local diner, rather than forcefully drag her back to the farmhouse, he lets her go as naturally as releasing a fish back into the stream. From there Martha makes a shaken phonecall to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and is swiftly whisked away to the safe and similarly isolated comforts of Lucy’s swanky lakeside holiday home in Conneticut. The makings of a happy ending makes for a cryptic beginning, and it starts a chain of events and flashbacks that detail Martha’s time in the cult, and her eventual struggles with assimilating back into daily life. Through examining the fragments of a shattered narrative, writer/director Sean Durkin creates a troubling portrait of a splintered spirit — one that throughout various points in the film, is referred to as either Martha, Marcy May, or Marlene.
Elizabeth Olsen makes her big-screen debut as the lackadaisical Martha, and her dazed, poker-faced demure is a perfect conduit for her character’s mercurial behaviour. Rather than talk about future prospects, as suggested by Lucy’s workaholic husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), she disaffectedly mumbles and deflects with insults. She also lounges and sunbathes, but mostly sleeps, as if in a state of separation-induced ennui. She may be physically away from the cult, but it’s traces linger. When strange non-sequiturs abruptly interrupt her silence, such as the authoritarian and vaguely communistic “I am a teacher and a leader”, both Lucy and the audience are left unaware of what the words mean and why they ever materialised.
More troubling occurences, such as when Martha quietly sneaks into Lucy and Ted’s bedroom and curls up in their bed while they’re making love indicate she may be acting out on emotional trauma, the likes of which elude her guardians and test their sympathies. It’s only when Durkin cuts back to a happier Martha within the cult that we understand what exactly she craves –guidance, intimacy, purpose– and how the specific environment of the commune managed to fulfil (and later exploit) those needs.
Patrick has honed his skills of persuasion down to an art, so much so that when he manipulates semantics to form absurd conclusions like “death is pure love”, we don’t question why the impressionable Martha would debate him, or even admire his outsider logic. “You look like a Marcy May” he says, and so she is.
Durkin plays up a narrative and cognitive dissonance through lots of hazy cuts and unheralded changes in time and place, which often occur with a simple organic edit –she goes to bed in Conneticut and wakes up in the farmhouse and vice versa– giving Martha the impression of being caught between two planes, unable to fully submerge in one or the other. In fact the only thing that remains true to her character throughout is her unrelenting desire to swim; and being submerged in water is an oft-utilised motif in Martha Marcy May Marlene, symbolic not only of baptism and cleansing, of which both kinds occur in Patrick’s cult, but also of drowning. Martha is subdued by identity, unable to find the one she is most willing, or most allowed, to pursue.
Though effectively unnerving and shot with a sparse elegance, the success of the film lies not just in it’s psychologically taught narrative format, but also in it’s ability to thoughtfully express how cults as logically insane as the Manson Family or the Peoples Temple could ever attract such a devoted following. Who are those people? What were they looking for? What did they find? In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the answers leave us aching for those caught up in their mind games, the likes of which some may never escape.
Movie Rating: 3.5/5