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Home » Culture and Criticism

12/31: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Submitted by on December 12, 2011 – 4:39 PM7 Comments

I didn’t realize how tense I had gotten, physically, while watching Martha Marcy May Marlene until that last black screen. What an outstanding slow build of “can’t look”/”can’t look away” — you’d think the inciting incident, Martha’s escape from the culty commune and her Marcy May identity, would bring relief, but the apprehension in the viewer only increases. Martha keeps behaving inappropriately, more and more cracks crazing her surface (Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is perfect, quiet and thorough). Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, in the only role to date I haven’t loathed her in) asks increasingly angry variations on the question, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”, but she doesn’t know it’s the wrong question. The right question is one that most people would never think to ask, and that Martha can’t bring herself to point out, and the longer it goes unasked, the more irretrievable the situation gets. And the cult isn’t gone; it’s just far away. Or maybe it isn’t.

I can see finding that lack of resolution frustrating: why do Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) wait so long to consult professionals? Why can’t Martha just tell Lucy what happened? The script explains much of that in flashback; Martha witnesses, and occasionally abets, some nasty Manson-ish shit along the way. How and why Martha is receptive to Patrick, the charismatic leader of the cult (John Hawkes, fearless and icky), also becomes clear, mostly in present-time conversations with Lucy, who is guilty and responsible and also lecturing and smug in that particular way of older siblings. “‘I am a teacher and a leader’?” she repeats, baffled, and their whole dynamic is in that interaction. Martha had her reasons for seeking out these twisted parental substitutes (since it’s a good movie, it’s smart enough to give Maria Dizzia something serious to do, and her ghostlike appearance behind a homeowner in one climactic scene popped a “HOOOOOO-LYSHIT” out of me like a Heimlich). She has her reasons for relating to Lucy and Ted on a more resentful level. She has reasons. We just don’t know them all.

Writer/director Sean Durkin is in control of his material, but he’s not holding on too tight. He knows how much to show us of the cult’s silly in-speak, and how much of its sickening “ceremony.” (The story behind “Marlene” is typically well done: a bit hard to see, a bit goofy, a bit scary.) He uses ambient sound brilliantly, and often lets the meat of a scene happen off-screen, on the soundtrack, while a character is reacting to it (or not) as the visual. He has to end it where he does, so that’s where he ends it.

It’s not a perfect feature debut — but it’s still on my mind the next day, and Olsen is amazing. As Martha says the most hurtful thing she can find to Lucy, her face is Mobiusing her loathing of Lucy and her loathing of herself into a tangle of profound sadness, and it’s onscreen for maybe two seconds. God knows what she drew from in her own life for that, but she’s got some serious power.




  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    This movie was awesome, in a “wow, I just ripped off that armrest without knowing it” way. The seeming benevolence of the cult, how most of the time it’s just like a family–chores, dishes, hanging around and talking, but you can’t shake that whole “something is WRONG HERE” vibe as the women drift about in white like ghosts and the men do something endless in the barn.

    And the marriage of Lucy and Ted, and how their method of not talking about unpleasantness worked fine until Martha showed up, and that giant “cottage” that could house fifteen people with ease–both sisters have surrounded themselves with isolated environments to try to hold their psyches together, and it worked until they had to mesh.

  • Kara says:

    I am SO happy to hear that I’m not the only person who hasn’t been able to stand Sarah Paulson (and I must confess that she put me off the idea of this movie, but now I have hope).

    I blame Studio 60. For so many, many things, but particularly my hatred of SP.

  • attica says:

    Both SP and Hawkes were beloveable in Deadwood, but I get that show’s not a universal tasts. Ms. Isringhausen was a terrific character, and Paulsen played her slyly.

    I’ve got MMMM on tap for this weekend.

  • meltina says:

    I reacted to this as “Holy frack, I have to go home and love my daughter so she never feels like she has to join a cult to have someone care about her.” It’s a testament to how scarily well done the whole movie was.

  • Emily says:

    Man, I really wanted to love this movie, but I thought it just fell short. To me the relationship between the sisters was so underdeveloped… And I thought me their fight on the steps leading up from the dock felt like the only honest interaction between them. And Sarah Paulson’s reaction to her sister’s reappearance and behavior was just totally unbelievable to me… I understand tiptoeing around her for a little, but the lack of anything meaningfully more than that or a simpering “oh Martha, why” ultimately grated on me.

    While at first I thought that Elizabeth Olson’s performance was fantastic, by the end, it just felt one-note. Shell shocked / terrified for the entire movie just wasn’t enough range for me.

    Thats not to say the movie wasn’t full on creepy, or that it didn’t stick with me a few days after. But I thought it didn’t come close to living up to what its potential could be.

  • DuchessKitty says:

    The last 3 minutes of this movie really bugged the f*ck out of me, but I’m not sure I can articulate why. Ultimately I was happy that I saw the film, but like Emily, I wasn’t as impressed with Olsen’s acting as many are. I don’t know. Maybe she did such a good job of playing a listless, annoying nutcase that I’m having a hard time separating character from acting. I’m actually dying to see her in other things so that I can compare her performance.

    And boy John Hawkes sure can play “creepy-as-hell-yet-strangely-sexy” like a champ! I didn’t think he could top Winter’s Bone, but he did.

  • michael says:

    I found the need(about 20’in) to remind myself of the current location: ‘Lake/Farm’…
    The home invasions were also a bit cloudy. At first, I thought ‘they’ had ‘found’ her; then the second invasion/killing occurred.
    It was only then that I realized that the previous invasion ALSO wasn’t Martha’s whereabouts. That could’ve been clearer(?)

    As far as the flashbacks, as confused as I was, I now get it that she was someone with a foot in both worlds, and they were beginning to drag her soul to the middle, with no immediate hope of release.

    I loved this film.

    ps. I recognized(eventually)Maria Dizzia(the stabber)from a ‘Law & Order(“Cruise to Nowhere”)’episode-Bono’s mom…. More, please!

    And, of course, the lovely Sarah Paulson….

    “…I swear I’d give the whole thing up for you…”
    Lou Reed

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