A semi-sinister little film with the eerie, sunlit ambiance of headspace thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby or the original The Stepford Wives, Martha Marcy May Marlene presents a young woman trapped between two worlds. Having escaped an insular cult in the Catskills presided over by guitar-strumming head-hippie Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has sought refuge at her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) vacation home in Connecticut. But even hours away, Martha is haunted by her memories of the cult — and a feeling that its members are watching her.
How much is her imagination and how much is real is left unsaid by newbie director Sean Durkin, who won the director award at the Sundance Film Festival for his debut feature. Renamed Marcy May by Patrick, the film’s title indicates a young woman straddling two worlds, trying to decide, in many ways, between the lesser of two evils.
Though Martha never tells Lucy the exact nature of her distress, only that she has broken up with a bad boyfriend, there are many indications that all is not right in Martha’s world. She is fragile, paranoid, and often inappropriate, crawling into Lucy and Ted’s bed one night as they have sex. As the film unfolds and moves back in time to Martha’s life with the back-to-nature cult, a picture emerges of the source of her strange behavior. Young girls are offered up as sexual playthings to Patrick by cult pimp Watts (Brady Corbet). Patrick likes fragile blondes and he likes ’em young. The presence of one baby on the commune grounds suggests that he is planting more than just tomatoes down on the farm.
One of the most interesting and disturbing features of the cult is how the other women initiate younger converts into how Patrick likes his sex. Like a metaphor for incest, there is the unsettling sensation of how dysfunction can flower in families. And there are more disturbing activities too, like home invasions and a cavalier approach to right and wrong.
Even more unsettling: The home that should be Martha’s refuge from her dark past is threatening in its own right. Lucy and Martha have been estranged for years, and while nothing is ever definitively stated, you understand there is a history of family disharmony hounding the sisters. From Martha’s vantage, her upwardly mobile relations, with their vast home and desperate desire to have a child, can seem as strange as the cult she’s just fled.
Featuring the lesser-known sister of fashionista twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth Olsen is undeniably beautiful, a wide-eyed presence pitched somewhere between girl and woman. But there is also a blankness about her character that makes appreciating the actress for anything deeper very difficult.
An impressive mood piece and promising debut for Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene unfortunately lacks the substance to go with its beguiling look and feel. Its halting pace and hollow effect make it feel like grade-A Sundance bait: a little sexy, a little creepy, a little vague, and very stylized. Beyond the white-trash menace embodied by the impressive Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), the pretty-boy-and-girl cult members look like Urban Outfitters’ target audience. There is something comparably unbelievable in Martha’s alternation between a clueless innocent who thinks she can swim in the raw in front of her brother-in-law and her very savvy button-pushing ability to prod her sister’s Achilles heel: Lucy’s yearning for a child. Martha comes off as a little too knowing, too entitled, too bratty, and ultimately too ill-defined to be the succulent victim Durkin wants her to be.
You quickly see the appeal of the cult for Martha in flashbacks. There is clearly a comfort factor — a sameness in the every day and what you are expected to do, whether caring for the resident baby or cooking the evening’s meal. In contrast, the real world is a big, daunting, limitless void where your place and purpose can be mysterious. While her sister and her brother-in-law see her as a slacker with no direction or future, Patrick praised Martha again and again as “a leader.” In the cult, she is important. Back in the real world, she’s just another dopey kid mooching off her family while she decides what to do with the rest of her life. As played by Olsen, Martha often seems less traumatized and more like she’s just returned from a junior year abroad in Guatemala with a massive chip on her shoulder about American yuppie privilege.
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