The psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene boasts a compelling beginning. Quiet serene scenes of an East Coast woodsy town speak volumes to us about something not being quite right there. Any chills on the arms are soon dead-on as we’re brought into the world of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she plans a getaway from the cult where she’s been a captive.
Martha, called Marcy May for the past few years, holes up in a diner after calling her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. But she faces urgent danger when Patrick (John Hawkes), the man who has corrupted her mind and ravished her body, arrives. Writer/ director Sean Durkin plays this scene well. Fear could be a dish delivered to Martha’s table while she waits for Patrick to drag her back to her prison without chains. However, Patrick has faith in his brain-washing skills and leaves the decision in Martha’s hands.
Lucy, who hasn’t seen her sister or known her whereabouts for two years, can’t help being curious. But her questions regarding where Martha has been are ignored or answered in non-explanations. Lucy, now married, takes Martha to her lakeside vacation home where her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) waits.
Elizabeth Olsen & Sarah Paulson
Sean Durkin’s screenplay is based on his fascination with cult life. He uses endless flashbacks to flush out the story of what Martha’s life has been like as well as to expose her leftover paranoia and psychologically disturbed sense of reality, thereby creating a “what’s around the next corner” unraveling of the film.
John Hawkes & Elizabeth Paulson
Things do not go well for the threesome. Ted refuses to forgive Martha for her obscure behavior such as jumping nude into a lake shared by other home owners or crawling into bed with him and Lucy while they have loud sex.
I had several problems with this film. Although it may be appropriate for a thriller, some things kept my focus off the story. For example, the dull set at the lakeshore home in Connecticut appeared too much like a set to me. Also, Paulson never delivers the sympathy toward her sister that I wanted to see, and I never understood why Martha didn’t tell her what had happened in those two years she was gone. Plus, we’re left with many scenes where Martha imagines – or maybe really sees – Patrick hiding in trees and keeping constant watch over her.
Still, first-time director Durkin shows real promise in conveying his ideas to film, and Elizabeth Olsen – yes, sister of those famous Olsen twins – gives a wonderful performance here, especially since she has only a few movies under her belt. She comes across as a star to watch. Also, John Hawkes easily nails the role of a sly, creepy cult leader.
What annoyed me the most about this movie involves the ending. There isn’t one – well, ask Durkin, and he disagrees. But it leaves the audience to decide what really happens at the end. I’ve always felt this to be a cop-out. If viewers don’t write the beginning of a movie, why should we have to write the ending?
Photo credits: Fox Searchlight / Jody Lee Lipes