The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Martha Marcy May Marlene

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The most obvious place to start is the title. It’s as long-winded as The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989), but adds to that the additional difficulty of having something of the tongue twister about it. Its cussed unusualness helps it stand out, but the tone is a little off. Based on the title alone we’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a romantic comedy (and not just because of the Owen Wilson-fronted excrescence Marley & Me [2008]), but also because (a) there is a screwball element to those women’s names all jumbled up - a whiff of the ditzy, and (b) it stars Elizabeth Olsen, sister to child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley, who’s TV films include How the West was Fun (1994). After the title, the film feels almost like an ambush, and as such this procedure would be in keeping with the film’s theme. And yet, all that said, the title itself is perfectly appropriate. The film is about a central character whose identity, and whose sense of her own identity, shifts throughout the film.

Martha is Martha to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). She is renamed Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), whose soft-spoken charm is so seductive at first. Marlene is finally the surname cult members adopt when answering the phone, which obviously and ominously suggests Manson family (another M) group-think. Martha was clearly a vulnerable person in her past. She seems fragile, but the film, with a Haneke-like reticence, refuses to come out and tell us precisely why. As with the characters in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), we know Martha has a history, but we don’t know what it is. We know she has, to use the insipid weasel word of modern parlance, ‘issues’, but to begin with we don’t know what they are.

First of all she is part of the family. One amongst a group who work on the farm and then wait on the staircase, until the men have eaten, before going to eat themselves. Her sister picks her up as a bruised and frightened runaway, but is unable to prise out of her what is happening and is fobbed off with a story about a boyfriend. She seems so pleased to have a chance to redeem her own relationship with Martha, and assuage her own guilt at having abandoned her, that she doesn’t want to press her. Being a sister, she is still pettishly irritated by Martha sitting with her feet on the kitchen counter, and both her and her English husband are outraged by Martha’s stripping off to go swimming. Again, you can almost imagine the trailer to an alternative rom-com version of the film, with Ted and Lucy as Mr. and Mrs. Normal and Martha as the madcap ‘fish out of water’. But there is something terribly sad in Martha dripping and humiliated, not quite sure what she has done wrong, gathering her clothes. Martha is a victim of a cult, it is true. But she was already a victim of the society that led her to that cult.

The cult is brilliantly convincing, preying on vulnerable young women, criticising a failing society (‘they can’t keep bailing people out’), championing self-sufficiency and self-empowerment (‘you’re a leader and a teacher’), but all the while stealing your autonomy and self-control from the backdoor. Director and screenwriter, Sean Durkin glancingly reveals the inner workings of the cult without giving us the fifteen minute lecture that Kevin Smith scripted for his cult leader (Michael Parks) in Red State (2011). It is not out-and-out brainwashing, but then again brainwashing (Red State aside) never is out-and-out. It’s subtle and crushing. Patrick combines new age soulfulness with me-generation self-improvement. He plays a guitar and writes a song for Martha. He is flattering and concerned, and he offers love and reassurance where in the past there has been hostility and criticism. And then he rapes her.

And this is where the trick of total domination and control comes in. For someone to be violated they have to have a self; but if you have managed to get rid of that self then how can they tell whether they’ve been violated or not? In Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), a whole family lived within a world that was entirely isolated, an ideology having been invented which rendered their abuse not only invisible to the outside world but, more significantly, invisible to themselves. It was a portrayal which quickly had parallels drawn with the real life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria. When Elisabeth Fritzl was lured down to what was to be her prison for 24 years, her father did it by asking her to help him carry a door; the door was actually the last part of her prison to be fitted after she had been etherized. He told police she had joined a cult. The danger specifically of cults has probably been best shown in the 2006 documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which saw one of the largest mass suicides/homicides with 918 people losing their lives.

Here the cult appears to be a back-to-nature commune. There’s a healthy scepticism of society which Martha still feels even after she has left the group, questioning Ted and Lucy about their value system with a sudden steely-eyed vigour. But this ideological stuff is a backdrop to the more insidious invasion of the self. The control of food seems to be fundamental here. As soon as she escapes, Martha wolfs down a hamburger which she is then unable to finish the minute another cult member, who has pursued her, arrives. And there’s the sex - the communal sex that seems to be a compensation for a risky excursion into home invasion, or the straightforward drugged rape, which serves as an initiation to all the young women; part of the ‘cleansing’. We understand Martha’s total capitulation when she prepares another unknowing young woman for a similar ordeal, crushing the tranquilizers into a drink which looks exactly like the health shake that her sister Lucy will later (though earlier in the film) offer Martha.

The story is told in flashback, if we want to talk about this conventionally, but the flashback itself is part of Martha’s disrupted psychology, her inability to grasp exactly what is happening when and how. She doubts her own memory and sees connections where there might be none. The past bleeds into the present, with a sound effect apparently happening in the present only to be revealed a good deal later to actually belong to a memory: for example, the sound of rocks being thrown onto the roof is first heard by Martha at Ted and Lucy’s, but we don’t get an explanation for this until we see the first house invasion from the past. Martha’s confusion is initially also ours, but as the film progresses we are able to pick out meaning and interpret her present dilemma via her past experience. The one major ambiguity is the extent to which the pursuit of the cult is in fact real or paranoia. In a sense, it is almost irrelevant. They have intruded so much into her mind that she is unable to function in society, or at least in Ted and Lucy’s version of it. She seems to see Patrick on the other shore, but the shot is odd - out of kilter with the realism of the rest of the cinematography, as if it was a back projection. She vandalises a car that looks like Patrick’s and could have been Patrick’s, but then again her sister gives her a smoothie that looks identical to the drugged smoothie she gives Sally.

The final ambiguity could read as a cop out - not so much an open ending as a refusal of the film to make up its mind. Of course, if the cult really is after her than the threat is external - mad cult people to be fought off, and the film becomes a straightforward thriller. But I would argue that the last shot represents a final catastrophic breakdown of reality; Martha is finally losing it. And this also calls into question the family and society which served as such an effective prelude to both the experience and attractions of joining a cult in the first place.

This Alternate Take was published on February 26, 2012.

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