The fractured nature of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is eerily reminiscent of the same tactics used by Derek Cianfrance in his 2010 film Blue Valentine. This film relies less on the novel like structure of the aforementioned film, as it effortlessly invites the viewer into the psyche of its lead protagonist, Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen in what might equate to the breakthrough role of the year. While Olsen’s character is referred to as all the names in the title, it serves as more than just a clever juxtaposition of names, thus reinforcing the crucial theme of identity throughout the picture.
What makes this effort most impressive is that its writer/director Sean Durkin’s first directorial effort. Supremely assured, Durkin evokes the skills of a well-trained veteran behind the camera. As the film opens, Martha finds herself on the run from an abusive and manipulative cult that she’s lived with for the past two years. Martha is left shaken and unhinged, immediately phoning her estranged sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, to come and retrieve her. As she attempts to settle in at her sister’s lavish vacation home in Connecticut, Martha plays emotionally distraught house guest to Lucy and husband Ted played by Hugh Dancy. Having only been days or weeks removed since fleeing from the cult, Martha’s sense of identity begins unraveling at the seams, stirring familial tension with a foreboding sense of paranoia that never quite lets up.
Durkin never offers any exposition on what led Martha to the cult, but from what we can gather, she’s not the first or last female immediately drawn into this carefree pastoral lifestyle, led by the charismatic Patrick, played by John Hawkes. The film wisely avoids any stand-alone scenes that would otherwise generalize the commune’s plight; it’s either implied, or mildly hinted at throughout. Hawkes’ Patrick is devilishly subdued, playing a silent and shadowy antagonist, rather than the clear cut villain. The film offers commentary on conformity as a false sense of protection, especially in lieu of Martha’s days with the cult. Martha’s lack of normalcy quickly begins to fade, as well as whatever patience Lucy had for her. Martha’s sense of shame and ambivalence towards revealing her plight occasionally comes across as being naive, but Olsen quickly diminishes any sense of falsity within her character.
What Durkin does best is no simple task for such an inexperienced filmmaker. What failed to register at first, has reared its head hours after viewing the film. Martha is struggling to function in the face of an innumerable amount of ciphers that are being placed in her way. Martha’s most traumatic memories of living on the farm begin to spill into her halted and troubled psyche. As both present and past timeline’s begin to coincide, the shifting balance of the narrative is left in the dust, resulting in a brooding climax.
Thematically, the film is a little under-cooked when dealing with Martha’s arc. While the script does its best to not hold the audience member’s hand, there’s a lot left to be desired in terms of Marcy maneuvering through such harsh psychological terrain. Most of the present day scenes are expertly captured, but one can’t help but scoff at some of the depicted on-goings that take place on the commune. Durkin’s motivations seem to be those of a guy playing it safe and not increasingly pressing the issue behind what makes this cult tick. It’s by no stretch a perfect film, but a confident portrait of a woman daunted by stillness.