By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) -
Having recently escaped from a cult in Upstate New York, Martha is broken inside. She is haunted by bouts of paranoia, and with flashbacks of the oppressive, often sociopathic people with whom she lived. She seeks refuge at the summer home of her sister Lucy, but her experiences have made it difficult to assimilate and her family seems to expect far more of her than she is able to deliver. Meanwhile, she is now convinced that the cult has followed her, and intends violence.
It would be far too easy for filmmaker Sean Durkin to turn this into an action-thriller, or revenge fantasy. Or to make Martha’s descent into mental collapse hyper-stylized, with surreal camera angles, quick cutting, and fucked up hallucinations.
Batshit insane cults have been done before, in real life
Durkin instead has crafted what might be one of the most starkly realistic portrayals of PTSD ever committed to film. Not only this, but his approach in dealing with the group she falls in with is unique. These cultists aren’t mouth-breathing rednecks, or ultra right/left wing nut cases, they are everyday people who for one reason or another feel outcast. The cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) preys on people’s social weaknesses by offering them comforting words and a simple life without the burden of decision making (albeit with passive-aggressive undertones).
Making matters worse is Martha’s sister and her husband, neither of whom fully comprehend what has happened, and whose first reaction to Martha’s behavior is the same stern rebukes Martha endured in the mountains. Indeed, much of the film’s power comes from the comparisons the director draws between the cult and her family. Martha craves acceptance, and for her part, is willing to conform when pressured, whether it be with family or strangers. These are often the film’s most disturbing moments.
The performance of Elizabeth Olsen is the core of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the film simply would not have worked in less competent hands. Her Martha is a lost child trapped in the body of a twenty-something, someone who went off the grid partially to spite her family, but mostly because she didn’t know what she was doing. When she falls in with Patrick and company she is desperate for a direction and open to suggestion. It is quite surprising how subtle and complex Elizabeth’s performance is, especially considering that she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
I want you to share in my pain. You’re welcome.
A performance that shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is John Hawkes’ cult leader. Patrick is a master of manipulating people to do his bidding, but also incredibly calm and collected. For the most part, he plays the poet and spiritual leader, even writing songs.
Not unlike someone else I could mention.
When he sees one of his disciples straying he knows when to be calm and assertive, and also when more aggressive tactics are needed. Most frightening of all is that he rarely has to lay a hand on anyone, as he has cultivated his followers in such a way that they will act out his wishes unprompted.
This is a movie that will probably not get as much notice as this year’s big Oscar contenders, but in its own understated way will find its way back into your head. Many viewers who express initial frustration with the ending will come to realize the enormity of the film’s meaning only with time.
Starkly realistic and heartbreaking. One of the strongest films so far this year.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time they call Martha “Marcy May”
Take a Drink: every time Martha does something crazy in front of her sister, and Down a Shot when her sister finally figures out that professional help would be a good idea.
If you watch it in the theater, Down a Shot: at the end when you hear everyone’s confused reaction at the ending. Take a Second Shot: if you don’t get it right away either.