Winner of the Best Dramatic Direction award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a clever, creepy and extremely striking reflection on the duplicitous way cults instill their beliefs when feeding on the psychological vulnerabilities of their prey. The group’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), a charismatic but formidable figure, heads the commune, attaining trust by preaching the nirvana of pure love, then proceeding to degrade the commune’s women in degrading sexual initiations. What is admirable about director Sean Durkin’s directorial debut is how Durkin is not interested in pointing the finger at any specific ideology. Instead he stops to examine what might drive such organizations, what might cause one to resort to becoming a member, and more importantly, the psychological repercussions it may have on impressionable youth, in this case, our titular character Martha, played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen.
Olsen’s title character, variously renamed throughout the film (explaining the tongue-twisting title), breaks free from the confines of the Connecticut commune and takes refuge with her conventional older sister and her husband in their home. Her family has no idea she just spent two years in the cult, but when Martha finds herself having trouble coping with what “society” claims normality, she slowly begins to break down.
This stellar piece of American Gothic cinema calls the arrival of two major talents on the independent film scene: Durkin demonstrates incredible control of his camera and his ability to evoke an incredible sense of quiet dread through confident filmmaking. Martha Marcy May Marlene enters so richly into a thought-provoking psychological study, one would assume the director had more features under his belt. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) delivers a bravura performance, effortlessly juggling between a remarkable range of emotion: weary, naïve, carefree, remote, psychologically scarred, innocent, mischievous, unhinged and so on. Her work is both ambiguous and intense, ranking as one of the best performances of the year.
At one point, Martha asks, “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” This piece of dialogue perhaps best describes Durkin’s approach to the narrative structure. Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier intercut brilliantly between Martha’s troubled memories of the commune and the present. The film’s flashback structure guides us to understanding her erratic, hostile behaviour and the lingering psychological damage done to her. The juxtaposition aids in drawing comparisons between her life before, during and after her time in the cult, to help us understand her initial attraction and later resentment. These juxtapositions blur the transitions between both the two timelines and Martha’s dreams and nightmares, often leaving us uncertain as to what is what, and when is when.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Afterschool) does a marvellous job with arresting widescreen visuals and mostly static shots, and the sound design and musical choices are equally daring. A sister project to his short Mary Last Seen, MMMM is a must see and ranks as one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. Those who don’t like their endings to be cut and dry may be disappointed, and while mainstream America won’t take the time to appreciate this work of art, Martha Marcy May Marlene will surely find its own cult following.