Nothing about Martha Marcy May Marlene suggests the work of a rookie star and a first-time director. There is a real motivation and superior craftsmanship, a consistent feeling of dread, and some fine performances. Though it may be a bit cold and a little too distant at times, I was unsettled throughout the film, all the way up to the ambiguous final shot that may be the best of the entire picture. The star is not the film itself, however, but the performances, first and foremost from Elizabeth Olson, the younger daughter of the waifish Olsen twins. She plays Martha. She also plays Marcy May. And, in a sense, she is Marlene. To understand the bewildering aspects of the picture, look no further than the title itself.
The film revolves around the confusing and brainwashed world of young Martha, one of a dozen or so women living at a remote farm. The farm is a cult, run by the omnipresent Patrick (John Hawkes), a master manipulator who controls the women and systematically rapes them as a right of passage. Something went wrong with Martha as a younger woman, something left intentionally ambiguous which led her to the farm. It may be hard to understand how women find themself in this world, living under the rule of this psychopath. But it is clear the women on this farm have all come from a place where they felt no love or respect. Patrick shapes their mind into believing he is giving them something they never had before, and something they always wanted.
The women, and a handful of men, are referred to as "the family." They all have chores, the women all sleep in the same room and share the same clothes. They eat only after the men are finished. There are a few young children on the farm, all boys. Martha informs a newcomer that they are all Patrick's children, and he "only has boys." This line, like many delivered in the scenes on the farm, raises disturbing questions about what may have happened to the females.
There is a past and a present in the film. In the present, Martha has escaped the farm and called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help. Lucy takes Martha in to live with her and her husband, Ted, an architect played quite well by Hugh Dancy. Lucy and Ted live in a massive lakeside home, and appear to be comfortable despite the regular stresses of work and beginning a family. But Martha is clearly disturbed and needs help. Lucy never hears the story from Martha, but her complete lack of sexual boundaries - her penchant for swimming nude or coming in to lay with Lucy and Ted while they are having sex - and her confusing outbursts suggest severe mental confusion. the past, Martha's life on the farm, bleeds through into the present like a seeping bloodstain. Often times, Martha grows confused as her memories invade her present. Lucy and Ted remain calm for a while and try and help Martha adjust, but it soon becomes too much to handle.
Martha is her name. Marcy May was her name on the farm, given to her in throwaway fashion by Patrick. Marlene is the name of every woman on the farm when they answer the phone. This is a movie that has true motivation, filmed with a stark contrast where background light invades foreground color. Elizabeth Olson is a fascinating young actor, a moon-faced beauty who shows pain and confusion better than any young actresses. This would have been a film for Maggie Gyllenhaal ten years ago. And John Hawkes floats like a specter of dread throughout the scenes on the farm. He may not be on screen often, but there is a sense he is always just outside the frame. And the song he writes and sings for Marcy May is a hypnotic moment in the picture where you begin to understand the pull of Patrick's mystique.
Martha Marcy May Marlene was written and directed by Sean Durkin, and is his debut feature. That is astounding. Durkin has a firm grasp on the tone of his film, and uses sound like a seasoned vet. The film may be too distant at times. I would have liked just a bit more fleshing out with a few characters, scenes, and situations. But there is no denying the captivating spell this film can cast over a viewer. And like I mentioned, that final shot, quick and ambiguous, is a complete summation of the quiet threat throughout the entire picture.