Why make your film linear when you can flit between past and present, and leave audiences crying “Wait, what?” Martha Marcy May Marlene has a free-moving timeline that messes with your head, and it’s completely absorbing. It’s a tense, oppressive movie with one of the most difficult titles to remember, at least after you see the film. I mean, it sounds quite stupid but “MMMM” is in fact, very clever and probably one of my favourite recent movies.
Martha Marcy May Marlene reels you in right from the start. You see Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from a creepy cult in the woody Catskill Mountains and the film uses a frantic, shaky-cam that makes you feel like you’re chasing after her. It’s almost off-putting in a way, but it works wonders for setting the tone.
Martha has returned home to her family; Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). She upped and left two years ago without telling anyone where she was going, but now Martha’s back and something’s not quite right. Martha’s time away has caused her to become damaged and unstable, haunted by her memories and increasing paranoia. Lucy doesn’t pick up any of the warning signs, so Martha’s suffering is a secret the audience only knows.
The film cuts between two very different worlds; Martha’s memories of cult life in the backwoods, and the present day in the family lake house with Ted and Lucy. We get the feeling these two times aren’t clear-cut. Is Martha delusional? Has she really left her cultist days behind her? We’re kept ill at ease for the film’s entire runtime. There is unbearable tension in every scene and a constant sense of unease. Its narrative structure sucks you into the mindset of Martha. Like her, we begin to feel paranoid and scared. We fear the cult members might turn up at the lake house at any given moment.
On a first glance, all this might sound far-fetched. I’d understand if anyone struggled to get on board with the plot. The classic trope of a young person struggling with their identity may make the eyes roll, but the story is told with so much finesse that the conventions become unconventional.
The main thing that sticks out in Martha Marcy May Marlene is its realism. Everything feels absolutely real, particularly the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). I imagine there are people out there, like Patrick, delivering their warped ideas to young people. The fact he could exist in the real world is what makes the character so scary, and Hawkes is a genius casting. Over the years, he’s proved himself to be an excellent character actor, having made his mark in films like Winter’s Bone. Likewise, in Martha Marcy May Marlene, he’s a real force.
As great as Hawkes is, Elizabeth Olsen is magnetic as Martha. She builds up Martha’s strange behaviour (skinny-dipping in a public lake, sleeping all day, not eating), and it’s impossible to crack a guess at what she’ll do next. Her oddball behaviour really tears at your gut and her development is just brilliant storytelling.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is too ambiguous for some tastes, but if you enjoy independent films, then it’s a must-watch. Unfortunately, it was mostly ignored when it came out seven years ago. It’s very much a “hidden gem movie” and it left me reeling with dread long after the end credits. This film is something really, really special. For me, it’s a mini-masterpiece.
Directed and written by: Sean Durkin
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Run Time: 102 minutes.