In the early hours of the morning, Martha quietly leaves a peaceful farmhouse and flees through the forest. This farmhouse is home to a cult that she’s been a member of for the last 2 years. We are given glimpses of this past cult life throughout the film as a present day paralleling storyline unfolds. After 2 years in the cult, Martha escapes and phones her estranged sister, Lucy. Lucy is slightly bothered by the situation, but doesn’t press the issue. She simply drives Martha 3 hours back to the lake house that Lucy and her husband, Ted, are renting. Martha can function in the real world, but struggles to “find her role” and she’s lost a lot of her understanding of what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.
At first, this cult seemed more like a commune of oddballs that live and work on a farm, but throughout the film’s duration we learn just how despicable and dangerous the cult actually is. The cult flashbacks are placed sporadically and indistinctly throughout the unfolding of the present day storyline and this style of storytelling works really well here. The more horrifying details we learn about this cult, the more Martha loses her grip on reality. The audience gets an increasing realization of just how menacing this cult actually is. Unfortunately, the more Martha loses it, the less responsive Lucy and Ted become.
This is the main problem I have with the film. From the very beginning, Lucy and Ted’s lack of understanding and sensitivity towards Martha is unrealistic. The film attempts to patch over this by creating a chasm between Martha and Lucy. The film acknowledges a tense childhood between the two sisters, who never seemed to get along. Unlike the audience, Lucy doesn’t get a first-hand glimpse of Martha’s horrible experience with the cult, hence Lucy’s lack of patience. However, Lucy’s ignorance of Martha’s past should generate more concern for her sister than the character does in the film. Martha Marcy May Marlene plays on this gulf between the sisters and, lazily in my opinion, uses it to manipulate the audience into buying that Lucy’s lack of concern for her sister is normal. I venture to say that, regardless of the past, Lucy should have pressed the issue. She should’ve asked more questions. A normal sister would see how out of touch and disturbed Martha is and demand that she get some answers and the lame excuse of a controlling, abusive boyfriend certainly wouldn’t cut it. I daresay that a normal sister would promptly take Martha somewhere that could provide physical and mental therapy. Plus, the only time Martha and Lucy don’t get along in the film is when the affects of Martha’s cult past clouds her judgment and causes her to react improperly. Swimming naked in a lake may not warrant a serious discussion, but unabashedly entering a bedroom and lying in a sexually occupied bed would absolutely cause a normal human being to stop and get to the bottom of whatever is going on. I find it somewhat patronizing that the filmmaker expects the audience to just go with it. I am bothered by this plot device of the two sisters not really getting along. It’s believable, but to then stretch that into explaining why Lucy and Ted never understand Martha is outrageous. Please don’t think I suggest that someone who has been abused to such a degree can ever really be understood, but Lucy and Ted’s behavior is one of neglect. They are unsympathetic and passive. They don’t know what Martha’s deal is and they don’t really care to understand. If they did, then they would ask. I’m not buying that these two individuals wouldn’t delve deeper.
Another hold-up is that Lucy and Ted are renting the house for 2 weeks, yet on numerous occasions Lucy is shown gardening or planting flowers. Who does that? This scene merges with a similar gardening scene in a cult flashback. I feel like the only reason they were gardening at the lake is so that there would be a common element between the two scenes. I find it contrived.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a beautifully shot film whose look compliments its tone. The scenes transitioned so well from flashback to present day that there were times I didn’t know which storyline we were in. There’s a subtle similarity to both storylines that help to create a confusion between the two and that artistically mirrors Martha’s own struggle to separate the past from the present. John Hawkes’ performance as Patrick, the leader of the cult, is good, though Sara Paulson, as Martha’s sister, Lucy, over-does it just a bit. Elizabeth Olsen is the real reason to see the film and her performance is by far the best thing about it. I would be on board for an Oscar nomination, though it is a fiercely competitive year for the female acting categories.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is good, but not great. Director, Sean Durkin, shows promise, but the film itself has flaws. Martha’s reality isn’t very realistic in that the people in her world are unbelievably unattached.
Check out my friends’ “Cinematrimony” podcast and great discussion of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Matt and Francesca are always thoughtful, intuitive and, most importantly, humorous.