Review: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ offers subtle, creepy cult survivor

05.20.11 8 years ago

I remember watching the 1981 film “Ticket To Heaven” when I was a kid, starting to ask questions about faith and belief and dogma, and the notion of cults and deprogramming freaked me out.  I also remember when the Jonestown suicides happened, and looking at the photos of all those bodies, each of them a believer, and being struck by the profound sorrow of investing your full identity into something that you believe will free or elevate your soul, only to end up a dead, dirty sack of meat, betrayed and left to rot in some third-world hellhole.

This weekend, another fringe figure has convinced his followers that the end of the world is nigh, the third time this particular idiot has picked a date to claim the same thing.  I’m not sure how you earn and second and third try at this, but people keep putting their faith in him.  And at least with him, it seems like the worst that will happen to his followers when Sunday rolls around will be a sense of disappointment and, in the most self-aware few, embarrassment at ever having believed his drivel.  Maybe a few will even snap out of their delusions.

And, no, I don’t mean all believers in all things are delusional, but I do think anyone who believes that any man walking around on this planet has a calendar that already has the end date circled is a fool.  From the outside, it seems like it would be an easy thing to do, shake off this sort of doomsday nonsense.  You’d think that his followers could just realize something isn’t true, pick up, and move on.  But the human mind can be much like a cruise ship, slow to turn around once it’s been set on a course. And for many people who have undergone the sort of personality-shattering indoctrination that is part of many of these cults, it is impossible to find their way back to normal without the help and support of friends, family, and a trained professional.

But what if you had to do exactly that, all by yourself?

That’s the question lurking at the malignant heart of Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which made its debut earlier in the year at Sundance, but which I caught up with at Cannes.  It’s a strong, subtle film featuring a powerful performance by Elizabeth Olsen, who seems to have arrived this year as a new face with an old soul.  She may be the younger sister to the Olsen twins, but she’s a better actor than both of them combined.  At the start of the film, we’re on the rural property shared by the followers of Patrick (John Hawkes, exactly as creepy as he needs to be), and after group dinner one night, Marcy May (Olsen) casually strolls out the front door, looks to see if anyone’s watching, and bolts for the woods.  The other young men and women go looking for her, but she gets away.  She makes it to a local town where she manages to call her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).  She sounds confused, scared, disconnected from reality.

The rest of the film plays out in two distinct temporal tracks.  In one, we see how Martha (which turns out to be the real name of “Marcy May”) came to the cult, joined, as broken down and rebuilt, and what finally led to her escape.  And in the other, she doesn’t tell her sister a word about where she’s been or what happened to her.  It’s a bold choice, and as a result, Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) have no idea what they’re dealing with.  They think Martha’s irresponsible, unfocused, even immature, but they have no way of understanding just how damaged she really is.  They think some gentle encouragement and a few stern conversations about making career choices will be enough to wipe away whatever she’s been up to during her two-year-long lost weekend.

Olsen is particularly effective as a girl wrestling with her identity, waging a private war, torn in two directions equally.  Martha’s no dummy, and she knows that lines were crossed and would have been crossed again if she’d stayed with Patrick and his followers.  But Marcy May found something with those people, something she needed, something she’s reluctant to leave behind.

Her relationship with her sister also makes her struggle a difficult one.  Paulson is very good at conveying the sense of responsibility that Lucy feels for her fragile baby bird of a sister, but she’s also emotionally difficult, dealing with her own issues, and easily frustrated because she isn’t dealing with all the facts.  The two of them have some harrowing emotional ground to cover in the film, and both Olsen and Paulson are flawless in the way they hadle it, as are Hawkes, Dancy, professional creep Brady Corbett, and the rest of Patrick’s cult family.

Technically, the film is spare and clean and impressive, and overall, I would absolutely recommend it.  I’ve got one hesitation, though, and your mileage may vary on this.  I admire ambiguity in my movies, and some of my favorite films end at a moment designed to frustrate or provoke. Durkin’s choice here feels a little arbitrary to me, though, coy rather than considered.  Given the obvious control on display througout, I’m sure the ending does exactly what he means for it to do.  I just found it played like a cliche as a choice, and I feel like he could have taken the film all the way instead of ditching out for what is, in my opinion, a fairly cheap effect.

Even so, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is one of the strongest films I’ve seen so far this year, and you owe it to yourself to join up when you get the chance.  As long as we all survive tomorrow.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” will be in theaters October 7, 2011, in limited release.

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