Try saying that five times fast!
The H-Bomb: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), out of the blue after two years of no contact. Martha’s story is that she’s been living in the Catskills with some boyfriend all this time. Lucy agrees to take her in for the time being and brings her to the gorgeous, lakefront vacation house in Connecticut that she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
As glad as Lucy may be to have her younger sister back in her life, she and Ted both can’t help but notice that Martha’s behavior is a little… peculiar. Martha’s quirks start out as strange but minor annoyances; saying inappropriate things (“Is it true that married people never fuck?”), doing inappropriate things (skinny dipping in the lake in broad daylight with people about), but it’s all nothing they can’t just shrug off and ignore. However, Martha’s bizarre behavior soon escalates, with Lucy and Ted being especially disconcerted when Martha sneaks into their room and jumps into bed with them while they’re having sex, and from there they watch in alarm as she becomes increasingly erratic, confrontational, and even fearful that someone might be after her.
But why would anyone be after Martha? Well, as we the viewers are already fully aware of, Martha has spent the last two years in the Catskills, but not with just some boyfriend… she had fallen in with a cult. A commune-like cult, of about twenty or so, run out of a farmhouse, and led by the charismatic, but quietly intimidating Patrick (John Hawkes). We never really find out much about this cult, other than it takes in society’s young strays, teens and twenty-somethings, “cleanses” them, and gives them each a job on the farm. For the women, it’s usually cooking, cleaning, working in the garden, or taking care of the many infants Patrick has fathered, all of whom, creepily, are boys. It’s a patriarchal cult, with the men in charge of the women, and Patrick in charge of them all. He even gives them all new names when they join his flock (in Martha‘s case, Marcy May), as one of his ways of asserting ownership of them.
At first Martha is happy here, but over time she sees things that make her disillusioned with her “new family,” and once she finally realizes how dangerous they and Patrick really are, she splits. Now, living not so happily with her sister and brother-in-law, she has reason to believe that the cult members have found out where she is and are coming to get her… or are they?
The film remains skillfully ambiguous about that, right up until the final frame, and that is part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene, a psychological drama from feature debuting writer/director Sean Durkin, so damn effective. Maybe they’re really after her, maybe it’s all just in her head… who knows? The story is structured in a way that it’s constantly cutting back and forth between what’s happening with Martha at her sister’s house in the present, and glimpses of her time with Patrick’s cult. Often times, it’s something Martha says or does in the present that triggers memories of the past. And the more she remembers of what went on at that farmhouse, the more frightened and unhinged she becomes.
What really helps to elevate this understated thriller is the surprisingly incredible turn by Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins, and apparently sole heir to any acting talent in that family, as the title character (and many titles she does have). She makes Martha (Marcy May Marlene) endearingly shy and awkward, and gives her a sense of paranoia that intensifies throughout. This is a star making performance if I ever saw one, despite the film being a modest indie, and I can say with confidence that Olsen definitely has great things coming her way in the not so distant future.
Also delivering a knockout performance is veteran character actor Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), who is downright chilling as Patrick. On the surface he’s calm and friendly, but almost immediately one can sense something much, much darker underneath that welcoming smile of his. We see this when he “cleanses” the new women who come under his wing, by drugging them and then… doing something else. He will scold his followers, should they step out of line, and get them to bow to his will, all the while never even raising his voice. Hawkes makes it all look so damn easy, turning Patrick into one of the scarier movie characters I’ve seen in a while.
Paulson and Dancy are also terrific as the put upon sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and Ted. They want to do the right thing by helping Martha, as they know that something has happened to her, but she’s not saying what, and they’re both gradually driven to the end of their patience by her crazy antics. They do a fantastic job of conveying the couple’s feelings of helplessness and frustration. Kudos to them both.
If there’s anything to put people off from seeing Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s that it’s deliberately slow paced and quiet in it’s approach. It’s a film, that while a thriller, prefers subtly disturbing the audience with suggestion over showing anything explicit. In fact, there’s only one act of graphic violence, and even that is over very quickly. In terms of being low key, it makes Drive look like a Michael Bay movie by comparison. And much like Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene is another terrific film that, despite some rave reviews, not very many people have seen. I’d hate to fall back on this old cliché, but if Drive was the best film of 2011 that you didn’t see, then Martha Marcy May Marlene is most definitely the second best. And now that it’s out on DVD, I’d say that now is the time to see it.