Martha Marcy May Marlene (United States, 2012)
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dandy
A bleak, disquieting excursion to the dark reaches of a woman’s dissatisfaction, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a character study as boldly unrelenting as its tongue twister title.
After escaping from a farmhouse and running through the woods of the rugged Catskill mountains in upstate New York, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finds a pay phone to call her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), the only person she knows in the real world, and comes to stay with Lucy and her big-city architect husband Ted (Hugh Dandy) at their lakeside holiday home.
While she struggles to re-adjust to the rules of the real world, we discover through flashback what led to Martha’s fateful dash for freedom. The farmhouse and the dozens of people living in it are part of the cultish farming commune headed by Patrick (John Hawkes), a bearded, sinewy Charles Manson type with a charming and forcefully magnetic personality.
As a free-spirited young woman searching for meaning and purpose after the death of her mother, Martha finds herself attracted to the commune’s free food, free love lifestyle. On her first day at the farmhouse Patrick adopts her into his harem and renames her Marcy May, beginning the dehumanisation and subsumption of the woman formerly known as Martha.
But behind those large, cloudy eyes Martha never quite vacates Marcy May completely, and as she becomes more and more aware of what Patrick and the commune’s senior members get up to at night she finds more and more impetus to force her way out.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a frightfully harrowing investigation into the process by which the vulnerable can so easily find themselves at the mercy of others, as Martha finds herself at both the farmhouse and her sister’s lakehouse. The effect of Patrick’s personality on her psyche reverberates through her behaviour around her sister and brother-in-law, and her abnormal habits hint at the extent of abuse she suffered at his hand. This places a considerable wedge between Martha and her sister, who struggles to deal with her sudden appearance and emotional fragility.
Hawkes is genuinely haunting as Patrick, infusing his character with a truth and conviction most actors wouldn’t approach for fear of damaging their reputation. The term “brave performance” is usually perversely reserved to describe female actors getting their kit off, but it takes real bravery to morph into a sexually abusive, predatory cult leader – truly a despicable person – and make it so disturbingly believable, but Hawkes has now done it twice in two years. (The other being Winter’s Bone, for which he received an Oscar nomination.)
This film, writer-director Sean Durkin’s first feature, is a remarkable exercise in subtle visual suggestion, re-telling her time at the farmhouse as a series of recollections sparked by associations with people, places and things at her sister’s lakehouse. Caught between a life which abused her and the cold emptiness of a civilisation she finds banal and wasteful, Martha finds no escape from her dissatisfaction, a mood brought to life by the harsh, high-contrast greens and browns of the rugged mountain locations.
It’s not an easy viewing experience, but character studies rarely delve this deeply into the mechanics of a character’s struggle with satisfaction towards their own life. Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin may not be familiar names, but they’re certainly names to keep an eye on in the future.