What gives a cult the power to possess people in a way that their brain disregards common sense in favor of a maniac’s rhetoric? Considering the zany antics that often emanate from cults, one would have to be a desolate soul in order to associate with the social pariahs that are often the antagonist in horror films. And that’s exactly what Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is, a soul whose lonely past is painstakingly drawn throughout the course of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the debut film from writer/director Sean Durkin. As the film begins, we come to know Martha as Marcy May, a woman who seems to be a farm hand of sorts on a dilapidated property run by a group of nondescript twenty somethings. There’s a quaintness to the opening scene that suggests a tranquil life is being lived. This is just the first of many lies that the film presses on us. Leading this group of contemporary hippies is Patrick (John Hawkes), a soft-spoken man whose candor and comforting eyes offer an understanding hand to those who are weary by life’s winding road. Once again, his presence hides a disheartening truth.
We don’t know entirely what he has done to Martha (aka Marcy May), but it clearly has a damning effect as we watch Martha briskly walk out of Patrick’s world. After running aimlessly through the woods, and with her former cult companions chasing close behind, Martha escapes the life of Marcy May. Frightened that she will be caught by Patrick, Martha calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), as a last-ditch attempt for safety. Lucy complies and takes her broken sister in with no knowledge of what comes along with such a duty. Martha simply informs Lucy that she has left her boyfriend and needed a place to crash. Despite Martha’s assertion, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), find that Martha’s assimilation back into their lives is complicated with fragmented moments of fear and horrifying emotional outbursts. Unknown to Lucy and Ted, but slowly revealed to us throw ingenious methods of editing and the heightened paranoia of Martha, the cult that housed Martha was an idealistic group that acted as a position of power, both financially and sexually, for Patrick. With the present stirring up memories of the past for Martha, we come to see Patrick as an infiltrator of high regard. He’s a man who has stolen Martha’s innocence with a smile and kind words. What was once seen as a protector of the meek is now a man who turns drug based rape into a cleansing experience. This emperor has neither clothes nor a soul.
Considering Martha’s background, something we come to assemble through bits and pieces via interactions with Lucy, it’s easy to see how this young woman could be enchanted by a man who gives her the utmost attention. Furthermore, it’s also easy to see how this sinister man can strike fear into her. Both of these angles are brilliantly dictated through horrific moments built on insinuation and whispers. Durkin’s debut is undoubtedly a memorable one that assaults the viewer with shocking moments that can lose their distinction in regards to time and place. In doing so Durkin creates an unreliable narrative that places us in the warped mind of Martha, a woman constantly shifting from identity to identity and past to present. Where does this all lead us? It leads us to a film that is on par, at least from how the content is constructed and implemented, with the work of Hitchcock. There is very little violence and the gore is scant. Everything hinges on creating a chilling atmosphere and the furthering disillusionment of Martha. Carving Martha into an emotional wreck is Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen has surely launched her career with this numbing performance. Considering that she has to play Martha through various lenses, Olsen is illuminating as she deftly handles a role that begs her to be innocent and sexy; dismayed and assured. The role of Martha is a tricky expedition, but Olsen handles it with the savvy and know-how of an actress that has been in the game for decades upon decades.
Oddly enough, this won’t even be the film’s biggest detractor to mainstream audiences. It’s the ending that is likely to divide viewers. Without giving up too much, the film’s ending relies heavily on interpretation. Yet, this isn’t what disappointed me. No. What disappointed me was that after Durkin expertly built a steam of momentum throughout, he decided to end the film on an ellipses versus an exclamation point. Now, before anyone thinks I’m completely bashing the ending, I have to say it fits within the framework of the film. Sure, it’s abrasive and open-ended, but considering the unreliability of Martha’s mental state, it works. I’m not willing to peg these issues as being significant or distracting. They don’t take away from the film’s unnerving deception and tremendous performances. It truly is hard not to get lost in the film’s mix of reality and delusion. In some ways, we become just as lost and damaged as Martha as we listen to the devil’s gospel; becoming uncomfortably numb.