Martha Macy May Marlene (2012)
(15) Running time: 102 mins
Director: Sean Durkin
Writers: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Poulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy
Reviewed by: David Gillespie, official HCF artist
Sean Durkin’s eerie debut feature is as much an investigation into how someone deals with losing their identity as it is the brainwashing lifestyle of a creepy, rural cult ‘family’. He suggests that the real problems begin for the victim when they attempt to cut their ties with one of these groups. Mental wounds are always more difficult to heal than the physical. With regards to the titular character, Martha, she realises that she has to escape the cult’s clutches but feels drawn back to them to regain a sense of belonging. She feels she has no place in the normal world anymore.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young, spirited but vunerable young woman that is dealing with the trauma and paranoia of 2 years worth of conditioning from a charasmatic leader named Patrick (John Hawkes). The film begins with Martha calling her caring, older sister, Lucy (Sarah Poulson) to pick her up when she escapes the compound. The story then divides between her attempting to fit in with her sister and brother in law (Hugh Dancy) at their beautiful lakeside retreat and retreading the abuse or ‘spiritual cleansing’ of Patrick’s male dominated regime. Her older sibbling tries to get her to open up regards her experiences but Martha is unable to do so. She struggles to decipher what is memory and what is fantasy. Soon she is overcome with paranoia, guilt and fear as she retreads the sequence of events that brought her to her current location. It seems Patrick has a history of enticing vunerable, young women to his farm with the attraction of a simple and caring lifestyle where they are all equal and will find their place in the ways of things. The reality is that Patrick engages in drug rape sessions, theft and the occasional murder. Lucy and her husband start to wonder whether they might need to seek professional help to deal with Martha’s condition as she becomes more unpredictable, abusive and violent.
Martha Macy May Marlene is an unsettling and disorientating tale. It has an unstructured narrative that never allows the viewer to fully connect with the characters. I even struggle to repeat the title when friends asked me what film I had viewed at the cinema. Characters and plotlines are introduced but are abandoned at regular intervals and the climax is frustratingly open ended and confusing.
Elizabeth Olsen is excellent in the lead role. She is a stunning young woman and certainly has a screen presence. There is no doubt that she has a bright future ahead of her. However it is John Hawkes that the project will be remembered for for. With his lean and pointy features, he resembles some form of smiling, demonic creature. I did feel that there could have been a little more screen time for his character? Hawkes is present in the movie’s strongest scene where he seduces Martha with an accoustic balled. It is an incredibly powerful sequence and proves the actor to be a very capable vocalist.
Similar to Shame, it is suggested (but never explained) that the sisters’ behaviour may have been the result of something that happened during their childhoods . Martha has had mental problems before she is confronted with the cult and Lucy is a recovering alcoholic that has a guilt complex regards her younger sister’s welfare.
Martha Macy May Marlene is an enigma. It fails to leave you satisfied when leaving the theatre yet it dwells in your subconscious. There are many striking images but it is hard to piece together exactly what it is that you have seen and to what they were meant to convey? A strange tale but unfortunately, not in a good way.