Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tough movie. It handles a tough subject matter and puts its characters in tough situations, which makes it tough to sit through for the audience. Its narrative is sometimes tough to follow thanks to a disjointed storytelling approach and it’s also so darn mediocre, it’s tough to decide whether or not it’s worth seeing. It’s the type of movie I most hate watching, one that I feel indifferent about. Its posters are touting the fact that it won accolades at Sundance, but to normal moviegoers, that means little and I can’t imagine they will latch onto this picture the way the filmmakers are hoping.
Elizabeth Olsen (better known as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s younger sister) plays Martha, sometimes referred to as Marcy May. She has been out of contact with her family for two years and has shacked up in the middle of nowhere with a cult, led by Patrick, played by John Hawkes. Soon, she escapes and takes refuge with her sister, Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, and her husband, Ted, played by Hugh Dancy.
It’s a simple synopsis. At least it appears to be. It’s at this point the film begins to jump place and time, from her current situation to her unpleasant time in the cult. At first, it can be confusing, but it proves itself to be a well thought out narrative tool that allows us to see how she has been affected by the abuse. While she was away, she first discovered her sexuality, but she discovered it through rape and group sex. Later, when she walks in on her sister and brother-in-law making love, she doesn’t realize she may be crossing some boundaries because her introduction to sexuality was perverted. There was no privacy or right to her own body. Her body was essentially Patrick’s and he could use her whenever and however he wanted, but because of what she was told by the other girls living in the same situation, she began to believe it was a good thing. She was finding acceptance from Patrick.
As stated, it’s a tough movie. Rape is never fun to sit through, but you’ll be sitting through it multiple times in Martha Marcy May Marlene. However, it must be noted that the horrific deed is never romanticized. It’s shot like the grungy, filthy act it is and credit must be given to first time full length director Sean Durkin for it. Nothing in the movie is particularly beautiful to look at and its dark tone is matched by its dark visuals, though one could argue it’s perhaps a bit too dark, to the point where if it were in 3D, the entire screen would literally be black. Still, he keeps the direction understated and full of moderately long takes, which gives the film to his actors, who all come through. Hawkes is great as usual, but Elizabeth Olsen is the one who has to prove herself. And she does. With some more experience and guidance, she could prove herself to be a star.
This is a movie for its actors and it succeeds or fails because of them. Nevertheless, questionable casting decisions pervade it—Olsen and Paulson look nothing alike; the illusion of sisterhood is difficult to grasp—and certain character actions seem out of the blue and don’t make much sense. It’s clear Martha is struggling with some demons, but the reasoning behind some of her freak-outs isn’t always properly explained. Actually, not much is. Aside from the names being different monikers for Martha (Marlene the name she used to answer the phone), the title’s significance is lost on me, if there even is one at all.
Martha Marcy May Marlene keeps you in the dark, which isn’t always a bad thing, but it keeps you there to a fault. Its ambiguous ending only adds to its frustration. Keeping things open ended is fine, as evidenced by the brilliant ending in Inception, but here it comes off as unfulfilling in a movie that was already severely lacking in explanation. When all is said and done, you’ll find Martha Marcy May Marlene to be haunting without being unsettling, interesting without being gripping and good without truly being great.
Martha Marcy May Marlene receives 3/5