Writer/director Sean Durkin may or may not have conceived of Martha Marcy May Marlene as being a political film, but it’s certainly apt that the film is released as protesters are occupying (conceptually, if not physically) centers of commerce in New York and just about every other major city across the country. The film sets up two contrasting nightmare visions of capitalism and communism, straight out of the C. Wright Mills/Talcott Parsons debate playbook, and suspends a haunted Elizabeth Olsen between them like a filament between two magnets.
Olsen plays Martha, who was Marcy May (and sometimes Marlene) in a Catskills cult she joined as a young runaway. The cult is led by Patrick (Minnesota native John Hawkes, lean, muscular, and wolfishly handsome at 52), who runs things pretty much as you’d imagine, inspiring Martha to flee to the Connecticut vacation home of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). The film alternates scenes from the present with flashbacks, so we gradually learn about both Martha’s life in the cult and—as she trades barbs with her sister—the original family life she bailed from to become Marcy May.
A press blurb on the flyer taped to my seat at a preview screening informed me that Olsen’s performance in the film was to be career-making. Olsen certainly is good in the movie, but it’s also true that if you were a beautiful Olsen sister who could hold still and look generally troubled while I illuminated your face dramatically from one side and shot you in extended close-up, you’d be about 80% of your way to your own career-making performance in this film. “It was shot like the 1998 Abercrombie & Fitch catalog,” said my friend Jason as we walked out.
Indeed, any Abercrombie & Fitch photo director would be proud of the way Durkin feasts his lens on Olsen’s nubile curves, which are not infrequently au natural. When we left the theater and a marketing rep asked us what we thought of the movie, my friend Sarah immediately said, “Her tits are so impressive compared to her sisters’!” No one, including the marketing rep, even tried to deny that’s what we were all thinking.
What Martha Marcy May Marlene has going for it—artistically, I mean—is a remarkably consistent somber, eerie tone, which Durkin sustains even as Hawkes spouts sonorous sophistry (“Death is the most beautiful thing about life, because we so fear death that only in the presence of death are we fully alive,” or something like that) and Dancy sputters that Olsen’s cult-honed criticisms of his bourgeois lifestyle are misplaced because “It’s not that simple!”
Perhaps the most genuinely disquieting aspect of this psychological thriller is Durkin’s refusal to go easy on either the cult or the world Martha faces outside it. Without shrinking from the cult’s very (and I do mean very) significant hazards, Durkin shows us how dark the horizon stretching beyond the cult’s boundaries can seem to a young woman who doesn’t know of any other place she really wants to be.
The film’s conclusion will be divisive, and I suspect that most viewers will fall on my side of the divide in finding it annoying. I’m tiptoeing through a spoiler minefield here, so I’ll just say that an ending of this sort should propel the viewers forward rather than simply dumping them out. Upon reflection, Martha Marcy May Marlene may remind viewers of Black Swan, which threw itself into psychological horror with gusto. Martha Marcy May Marlene, by contrast, lowers itself into horror like a beginning swimmer wincing her way down the ladder. (The soundtrack, appropriately, is ripoff Ligeti by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Juuriaans—rather than Black Swan’s ripely authentic Tchaikovsky.)
Wincing reluctantly into horror rather than leaping into it may be less gloriously cinematic—but, to Durkin’s chilling credit, it’s much more real.