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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I'm not sure you're allowed to be looking at us. It's against your cult
leader's rules

dir: Sean Durkin

A strange film. A strange, awkward film about a strange, damaged girl called Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). Well, her name is usually Martha, and then someone else anoints her as a Marcy May, and then later on, when asked her name on the phone, she calls herself Marlene, just like all the woman in her cult when they’re on the phone.

There’s your explanation of the title, if that’s what was perplexing you. It’s also the only way to remember the title itself. For months people would refer to the film or ask me if I’d seen it, and we’d both be flustering or dribbling “you seen that Marley uh Macy Grey, uh Mandlebrot movie yet?” in the struggle for a title.

I’m not sure if it’s a character study, or if it’s just an uncomfortable look at a mildly insane woman, but what it ends up being is a tedious drag. I know it’s meant to be a great film, and that it garnered a lot of praise last year for the central performance and for the creepy and oppressive atmosphere it generates, but I really, in the wash up, don’t see what the fuss was about. I'm not trying to be oppositional just for the sake of it, nor am I disliking it just because critics wanked over it.

Olsen has a very expressive face, though, for my money, she’s more reminiscent of Maggie Gyllenhaal than her evil twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley. Her performance is strong at times, and weak at others. I wasn’t sure if it was the characterisation or the character that was the most inconsistent, but I found her compelling only rarely. Quite often, the character and the actress annoyed me, and not in a way that made me sympathetic to the portrayal or the film. If readers feel that I'm being unfair, I'm all ears (or eyes, as the case would be on the internets), and I am looking forward to someone putting forward the case that it's actually great, for this and this and this reason. Good luck, by the way.

It’s not clear whether Martha was damaged before she got to the cult, or damaged psychiatrically by her experiences there, but we deal with what’s given to us, I guess. As the film begins she flees from this isolated place in the Catskill Mountains, and tries to call her sister in Connecticut, who comes and picks her up. Though she’s escaped from a Manson-esque leader and his followers / fellow female slaves, she can't really be deprogrammed or whatever the appropriate word is because no-one else knows where she was living and what was happening. She tells her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) that she was shacked up with some guy and she left him, the end. She spends most, if not all her time with her sister and her new husband (Hugh Dancy) just lolling about and acting like she doesn't have a care in the world.

What the film does from there is intercut two timelines, being Martha's arrival at the cult onwards up to her escape, and her time with her sister, becoming increasingly more erratic. And it builds up to the revelation of why she left the bliss of the Leader's embrace, and then nothing in the current timeline. To describe the open, unresolved ending as annoying doesn't do justice to the use of the term 'annoying'. It's a kick in the fucking teeth for a flick that, up until that moment, hadn't done nearly enough to make me think the effort spent watching it had really been worth my time thus far at all.

If the scenes at the cult farm are more interesting than the other scenes, it's only really because Martha's scenes at her sister's place are so stultifying. They range from dull to crazy. She ranges from depressed to poisonously nasty towards people who mostly are the only people in the world who care about her, the only ones not in the cult that would look after her.

The curious entitled manner in which she acts towards her sister perhaps makes more sense if we look at her as still being, pretty much, in 'love' with the cult and its allegedly charismatic leader Patrick (the always great John Hawkes). Even though she chose, for very good reasons, to escape from them, her thinking is still in alignment with what she was indoctrinated with. So when she criticises her sister and her husband over the way they live, she's parroting the self-serving statements of the men from the cult.

I keep referring to it as a cult, but it's somewhat ambiguous, most of the time, as to what they're actually doing there. The men at this farm / compound rule the roost, but Patrick's the main rooster. We never see violence, or the threat of violence necessarily from the men, but its potential hangs in the air. There are far more women than men here. They spend their days doing gardening and such in order to continue being self-sustained. But the women cook, and have to wait until the men have finished eating before they can eat. And they eat less food, with less caloric value to it, than the men. They also sleep in a pile like hamsters.

Of course, I'm leaving out the more horrible aspects of it. Of course it's a cult, or some kind of fucked-up commune. The girls are found, presumably on the streets, and recruited and indoctrinated by the other women. They're also drugged by the women, so that The Leader can 'initiate' them. It's horrible, and it's one of the many examples of trauma we can see as having turned Martha even further round the twist.

The problem is not just that Martha is dull and dulled in her scenes in the real world. The biggest problem is when she mutters lines like "How far away is yesterday from now?" or "Is it true married people don't fuck?", the pretentious curl she puts on these bits of bad writing take you, or at least me, out of the picture. It reminded me that I was watching someone act so very hard in a flick that wasn’t as compelling as was imagined.

This is one of those performances that critics often label ‘brave’, or ‘powerful’, and what’s usually meant by that is that a woman gets naked lots, or seems to make herself sexually vulnerable on screen, with some regularity. I’m not denying any of that, I just don’t ultimately see what it was in the service of.

Did she have mental health problems before the cult got a hold of her? I don’t know. Did the cult’s strange environment warp her mind, or exacerbate existing vulnerabilities? Perhaps. Is she doomed to a life of psychiatric incarceration? We don’t know. Is there a legitimate reason why she hates her sister? Your guess is as good as mine.

About the only stuff this flick had going for it was the creepy score, and the creepy set up. It’s filmed well too, I guess. It ultimately leads to nothing, but at least we peer in to the creepiness, and feel that odd reality -warping effect people like that can have on otherwise sane people, and the ways weak people end up doing the unthinkable and considering it normal. The victory of monsters like these is to no longer need to control one of their devotees directly. They get you to do it to yourself, and to other people you find along the way. But what are we to make of the ending, that implies both that Martha could be finally getting the institutional help she needs, and that she is so far gone she sees Patrick’s henchmen everywhere, and that Patrick’s henchmen could be everywhere.

Maybe that paranoid dread was the sole point. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I care to find out. The deliberate ambiguity of the ending made it feel like the film ended because they ran out of film or the battery went dead, and they thought, “Well, we had a good run, might as well end it there. The dullards in the audience will probably think we’re being artistic and dangerous by finishing it like that, and that means awards gold at Sundance.”

You get no awards from me, you pretentious pointless movie.

5 times the way the sister overreacts about Martha swimming in the river warned me something was wrong with the film out of 10

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right? Death is beautiful because we all fear death. And fear is the most amazing emotion of all because it creates complete awareness. It brings you to now, and it makes you truly present. And when you're truly present, that's nirvana. That's pure love. So death is pure love.” – we love The Leader – Martha Marcy May Marlene