Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet
Running Time: 102 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's encouraging news for anyone who finds themselves indoctrinated into a cult. If you want out, you can just leave. We find that out in the bizarre opening scene of Sean Durkin's tongue-twistingly titled Martha Marcy May Marlene. In it, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) decides she's had enough of this abusive lifestyle in New York's Catskill Mountains,"escaping" to a nearby diner to phone her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). She picks Martha up and takes her to the lake house she shares in Connecticut with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). She neglects to mention the cult, but it's not like she has to. They'll know eventually. This opening is the most interesting sequence in a film filled with a lot of uninteresting ones, if only because the idea one could leave a cult at their own accord is a detail we've never been privy to before. So right away we know this won't be about Scientology. That movie doesn't come out for another month anyway. As for the rest of the film's details? They're less surprising.
This film's a strange case since it's easy pointing out what didn't quite work, but much tougher coming up with solutions that could have improved it. Its subject matter, psychology and seventies-style aesthetic should have made this a terrifying barn burner, but instead it doesn't seem to tell us anything we didn't already know. As awful as it is to say that a film featuring rape, murder, robbery and brainwashing offers up very few revelations about what's already widely assumed about cults, it's true. Nothing new here. The same could be said of the protagonist's psychological unraveling. Cutting between flashbacks and present day to simulate Martha's fractured psyche, we what her life was like in the cult as she's introduced to its enigmatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and taken in by his promises of a self-sufficient lifestyle. In the creepiest, most arresting scene, he serenades her with "Marcy's Song," and insists she go by the name Marcy May. Her sexual initiation is brutal.
Hawkes is one of our greatest character actors so it only makes sense he would tear into this role with gusto and he does. To a point. But I couldn't help but wish he had more screen time so he could cast an even larger shadow. His scenes are brilliant but feels like a teaser for something that could have been explored further. I understand the low-key, slow-burn approach, but eventually you have to pull the trigger and Durkin's failure to do that doesn't give Hawkes the meaty material he needs. He doesn't need to immediately serve Kool-Aid or go on a killing spree but something extreme or surprising certainly seemed called for when dealing with this kind of material. It doesn't help that the mostly intriguing cult flashback scenes is forced to share time with the clumsier present-day storyline.
Martha's sister and brother-in-law are depicted as complete dopes who somehow fail to notice a mentally ill person desperately needing help is living under their roof until it's almost literally too late. As if sleeping on the floor, swimming in the nude, and having panic attacks aren't enough to send up red flags. It's unreasonable to expect them to know the exact details of her situation, but instead of hearing her cries for help, they're yelling at her for being selfish. When Martha tells her sister Lucy she'd make a terrible mother, it feels like one of the few moments of clarity in the entire picture. If she can't even recognize such a blatantly obvious mental problem with her own sister, what does that mean for her potential parenting skills?
Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) delivers a borderline Oscar-worthy performance as Martha, even if the screenplay seems to beat the same drum throughout. It's an effective portrayal of someone who seems to be battling paranoia, post traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia all at once and is losing. Martha, as do we at points during the story, contemplate which life was worse for her. Abuse became her new normal, inflicted by someone who preys on the young and vulnerable. And now that it's over, real world problems begin. Is Durkin implying that being a slave to society is less preferable than being a cult member? Olsen's definitely a real find, and of all my issues with this, she'd never be listed among them. What works does so because of her quiet realism, but it's also easy to see how this came and went unnoticed at awards time. The material just wasn't there to support it, and when the film's taken as a whole, it's somewhat forgettable and unimaginative. Taken in pieces though, it's tougher to shake. Especially the final scene. It does succeed in making you think. resulting in a film that's worth another watch, but has a personality as fractured as its title character's