Martha Marcy May Marlene is the year’s most singularly immersive film experience. It plants the audience firmly inside the mind of its protagonist and provides a first-person view of a tragedy told on two timelines. One of those timelines traces the origins of the tragedy and the other unveils its results. The juxtaposition, filtered through the carefully constructed myopia of one damaged young girl, creates simultaneous sadness and tension, neither of which are broken for the film’s duration…and really, both carry on once the film cuts to black.
We meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) on what turns out to be her final night on the grounds of a ramshackle farm inhabited by a backwoods cult. The women cook a dinner and stand outside the dining room while the men feast. Once they finish, the women go back in to share the leftovers. In this early sequence, which unfolds almost entirely without dialogue, we clearly see the balance of power in this constructed frontier. Later, when most of the compound is asleep, Martha sneaks out through the forest, goes into town, and makes a desperate, rambling call to her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). For the remainder of her story, Martha is left – as are we in the audience – to put the pieces back together.
Among the cult that became her adopted “family,” Martha was known as Marcy May, a name given her by the group’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), who is charismatic in the disturbing way all cult leaders must be, if they are to lure a mass of naïve converts. Patrick renames everyone who joins the group, as one part of a brainwashing process that includes random home invasion and robbing young girls of their virginity while they sleep. It’s the kind of heinous initiation process that reflects how Patrick operates this underground society – snatching aimless, vulnerable young people and providing them with the semblance of a safe haven, so that he can mold them to fit his twisted purposes.
We glimpse Martha’s two-year stay with the cult through flashbacks so frequent that they don’t feel like flashbacks at all, but rather innate extensions of the film’s singular narrative organization. Writer-director Sean Durkin shows more assured command over his material in his first feature than most filmmakers display in their tenth, seamlessly weaving Martha’s present-day life with sister Lucy and her architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy) with “Marcy May’s” immersion into the cult. At Lucy and Ted’s posh lake house, past strands of familial discord create growing tension between the estranged siblings, who were likely always at odds, though the film stops short of explaining the details. We know that Martha dropped off the map two years earlier, but never know why. When she returns, Lucy and Ted regard her with superficial care but deep-seeded derision – she’s the black sheep who disappeared, after all, and they are more confused than curious about who she is and where she’s been. In truth, Martha doesn’t help her own case, refusing to reveal where she’s been for two years and becoming increasingly paranoid about her past revisiting her present.
As the story unfolds on both timelines, the year’s most perplexing tongue-twister of a title becomes easily understood throughout, but beyond the literal meaning is a subtle suggestion to the film’s underlying themes. Martha is her real name, Marcy May is her cult name, and Marlene is the name all females must use when answering the phone at the farmhouse. But she is so brainwashed that each identity bleeds into the next, to the point where not even Martha knows who she really is. She exhibits disturbing tendencies upon her re-entry into normal society, and experiences nightmares so vivid she can barely discern one reality from the other. Durkin so completely allows one timeline to shift into another that the audience comes to identify with Martha’s confusion and paranoia, ourselves unsure of what to expect from one moment to the next. We become an extension of the character, our only guide through this story a damaged, lost, unreliable girl living in a post-escape hangover that is less than therapeutic.
Similarly, Durkin allows his camera to function as a representation of Martha’s frail psyche. His framing suggests her constant entrapment, his frequent dips in and out of focus highlighting the hazy transition between memory and present-day reality. This visual immersion is aided by Zachary Stuart-Pontier’s editing, which delivers some of the year’s most breathtakingly beautiful transitions, highlighting Martha’s mental shift both between scenes and within individual sequences.
But no matter of technical prowess can deliver the indispensible human element that draws us to a character, and Martha is brought to vivid life by Olsen, the younger sister of the infamous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley. She side-stepped the path of child stardom that consumed her siblings and arrives seemingly out of the blue as a fully formed artist, delivering one of the most indelible performances of the year. She embodies the fear, the confusion, the rage, and the paranoia that drive Martha both to the cult and away from it, as well as the sad, fractured state of a young woman who frees herself of physical slavery but may never be free from its lingering mental torment.
[notification type=”star”]90/100 - We become one with Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film so shrewdly crafted that we adopt the protagonist’s paranoia as our own.[/notification]