Martha Marcy May Marlene continuously cuts back and forth between past and present. However, the audience could have used a lot more past and a bit more present to help understand more about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). The past shows Martha’s introduction to a reclusive cult deep in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The present reveals it is two years later, Martha has decided to escape the cult, and shacks up with her sister and brother-in-law in an upscale Connecticut lakeside community.
First time feature writer/director Sean Durkin is a bit manipulative with his script and shot choices. Frequently, you have to wait a moment or two to figure out if this new scene is in the past or present; it shows early on he is going to play with your mind to make you guess what it is until a character walks on screen. This mirrors what is supposedly going on in Martha’s head; she is having some major psychological trouble differentiating between her present surroundings and her experiences from the past two years.
It is up to the audience to interpret how Martha wound up in the company of the cult; the film does not show you that. Also, Martha must be extremely naïve, gullible, or downright accepting of cultish behavior because her assimilation is quite easy. Sharing beds, clothes, household chores, and each other’s bodies comes quite naturally to her. Even after a drugging and rape, Martha just shrugs it off as her introduction to the ‘family’. Through conversations with her sister in the present, you learn mom died young and dad is never mentioned but her early childhood experiences do not sound very much like they were setting young Martha up to be swallowed up by rapist farmers.
Back to the manipulation. Both segments, past and present, start very much in serene settings. The commune Martha joins is very accepting, calm, and the people provide a lot of compliments about her strong character and leadership skills. The present segment is on a beautiful lake in a gigantic house with supportive relatives. Then each respective scene adds an unsettling layer until by the end, these troubling and disturbing layers feel crushing. Events at the commune upset Martha to the point of breaking down and events in the present lake house are all of Martha’s doing because she has brought some extreme paranoia and cascading delusions with her after her escape.
I do not recommend this film. The director made some creative editing choices and is very effective at building suspense, but that is all it is. The ability to muster unrelenting suspense and dread is not the only element to make an effective movie. I became very tired of watching Martha heap abuse and vitriol at her relatives who put up her ridiculous behavior much longer than most people would. I also grew impatient watching Martha get sucked into a cult through outrageously obvious maneuvers.
Why is the film world falling in love with Martha? Almost every critic lauds its suspense and acting, Durkin won Best Director at Sundance, and it was included in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section. For Elizabeth Olsen, it was a very impressive first role, but I disagree that she has done anything amazing here. She spends the majority of the movie just looking sheepish around John Hawkes and annoyed at her relatives.
Break out of the spell Martha Marcy May Marlene is trying to ensnare you in. Perhaps it is a cult itself and you do not realize how deep you are being manipulated by it until the preposterous and absurd ending.