Film review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Subtle evil lurks in a believable portrayal of a traumatised, fractured personality, says Duncan Wu

February 2, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by Sean Durkin

Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes

Released in the UK on 3 February

Disturbed young women are a staple of the contemporary thriller - whether Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) or Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010). Their precursor is Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, whose mounting suspicion of those around her, fostered by a passion for Gothic novels, comes close to turning her into a paranoid hysteric.

Martha Marcy May Marlene features a descendant of Morland, one who goes by all the names in the film's title. Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen) has become involved in a cult that embroils her in sexual enslavement, housebreaking and eventually murder. Traumatised, she runs away to join her sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and Ted (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), who are holidaying at a luxurious house in Connecticut, and there she begins, slowly but surely, to unravel.

"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell whether something's a memory or something is dreamed?" Martha asks her sister. It is not so much a question as an admission. Unable to talk about her experiences, she becomes the prisoner of delusion. The underlying theme of the film is trust, for unless she can tell her sister what happened to her, she will go mad. Indeed, the film's title directs our attention to a fractured personality: with her sister, Martha is her old self; with the "family", she becomes Marcy May, sometimes Marlene. There is an echo here of another multiple personality, that of Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

"I don't blame you for not trusting people," says the cult leader, Patrick, played by John Hawkes, who is capable of sounding both sympathetic and menacing at the same time. "If you're ever going to have a meaningful relationship, you have to let your guard down. We want to help you. Let us in."

There is nothing weird about the manner in which he is played. Hawkes' rendering is of a compassionate, humane man who genuinely wants to help Martha and in whom it would be reasonable to place one's trust - at first. And this is where the film triumphs, for it respects the three-dimensionality of all its characters, avoiding the lure of the Grand Guignol. If Martha enters a kind of hell, its secret is that it does not appear to be anything of the kind; on the contrary, it looks like an idyll in the Catskill mountains, a latter-day paradise.

This is a clever, thoughtful drama, all the more impressive for being written and directed by a man in his twenties, Sean Durkin, and for starring a hitherto unknown actress, Olsen, whose second film appearance this is. Not everyone will like the film's ending. Some will find it abrupt - which it is; others will feel that it fails to resolve. But it has the virtue of plausibility, and shows us how irretrievably immersed Martha is in the ways of the cult she is attempting to flee.

In the US, this film has been a critical success but is unlikely to make much money at the box office - for the same reason I have lamented in these pages before. The garbage force-fed to the audiences of middle America only generates an appetite for more of the same, shutting down any possibility of more demanding fare.

Martha Marcy May Marlene certainly makes demands on its viewers, and is in some respects a difficult, even unpleasant, film to watch - as much because the damaged psyche that tells its tale is not capable of relating a linear narrative as because of its subject matter. Yet the reward of sticking with it is that of seeing a subtler thriller than those to which we are used, with much to say about the nature of evil.

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