I have a tendency to be paranoid about various different things in life and as far as I know my paranoia wasn’t created by any cult influence. From the first second of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE to the very last frame the cult influence on Elizabeth Olsen’s character takes a vice like chokehold on the audience and lets up only for brief moments to let you catch your breath before re-establishing the grip. The constant unease and threat looming in the background of the film is a presence that made MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE a suffocating and gripping experience.
Two years after disappearing off the map, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), resurfaces in her sister Lucy’s life. Martha is constantly on edge and behaving far outside the norms of a functioning adult because of her experiences in a cult that Martha refuses to speak about with her sister or her sister’s husband. The behavior Martha displays begins to have severe negative effects on Lucy and her husband’s relationship with one another and with Martha as she struggles to regain her footing in normal society.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a film that warrants more than just a single viewing but is also an experience that I didn’t feel a burning need to watch it all over again. Sure with the ending you will likely be left with a “wait a minute, what” feeling much as I did. The film’s goal is to establish the feeling of paranoia that Elizabeth Olsen’s character feels throughout and on that front the film does a pretty great job. The introduction of Martha (Marcy May as she’s known to the cult members) at the beginning is her leaving the cult and there’s no explanation as to why. We see that Martha appears to be very frightened and over the course of the film her experiences are shown in flashback moments that have some sort of relevance to stuff she is experiencing at her sister’s summer house. The flashbacks themselves have an unsettling feel to them as you see the cult leader, Patrick- played fantastically by John Hawkes- set the seeds for Martha’s eventual brainwashing. The process at which the cult operates creates a disturbing yet thoroughly engaging portrait of the lifestyle the women cope with within the cult.
The film is sold on the fantastic performances by Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. Neither of them has that explosive moment that demands the audience’s attention but instead does catch attention by the quiet subtlety of Hawkes’ menacing presence for such a scrawny character and Olsen’s helpless and confused emotional state. Olsen feels very much like a sponge that is twice drained of all her knowledge of life- once when she enters the cult and is filled with all these gross misinterpretations of how to behave like a normal person and then again when she leaves and tries desperately to assimilate to her sister’s lifestyle. Hawkes has a stare that can chill you to the bone and has this rugged charm that you can believe why he can manipulate these girls to join the lifestyle he places them in. He never raises a hand to the girls but does approach them as though he plans to get violent seemingly to strike fear into them and then enters his gentle side immediately after the intimidation- it’s unsettling to watch but the performance is quite effective.
The cinematography is very crisp and the film looks beautiful for the very droll color pallet. The camera often lingers on Olsen’s character to capture every subtle movement she makes and highlights the depth of her performance. One second she can appear as an empty shell of a person with no grip on who she is and the next something snaps and she busts out several emotions from confusion to outright fear. The ending plays heavily with how difficult she is to read at times and will likely leave some people incredibly cold and angry.
The tone and subtly of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE reminded me of another 2011 film, TAKE SHELTER- two very different movies that feature characters at two different levels of mental stability. TAKE SHELTER had some of the more hard hitting emotional moments that I feel I was missing from MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE but both films have an eerie tone and feature subtle and masterful performances by their leads. The one thing I was missing from this film was that one moment that just blew me away and several moments seemed to be going there and were often cut off before the real peak of the scene. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is still a very powerful film with a hypnotizing performance by Elizabeth Olsen. It’s a haunting film with beautiful cinematography and an ending that will force you to grab the nearest person and demand to know their opinion of what the hell just happened.