It’s often said that in the recent years, as horror films become increasingly reliant on over-the-top gore and jumps, the scariest stories can often be found in the last place you’d expect to find them. Martha Marcy May Marlene, a tale of a young woman irrefutably damaged by the cult she briefly lived in directed by the debuting Sean Durkin, seems on the surface like a serious, awards bait drama, but turns into a sinister, dark tale of paranoia, abuse and repression.
Martha (the debuting Elizabeth Olsen) begins the film by running away from a house she shares with multiple people. Why she is running, who she is running from and where she is running to? The film takes its time to answer all three of those questions. She is soon picked up by estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and goes to live with her and doubting husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Why are Martha and Lucy estranged? We do not know. Though she refuses to tell her sister of what has happened, we soon begin to see flashbacks to Martha’s time living with the cult she escaped from, under the leadership of the disturbing Patrick (John Hawkes). Along with other women her age, Martha is subjected to abuse, sexually and verbally, by Patrick and other men on the farm where they live together. What is Patrick’s ultimate motivation for his cult? It is never made entirely clear. Martha Marcy May Marlene is full of unanswered questions, and the overall experience is only tougher without these answers.
The film is dived into two major narratives; Martha’s increasingly erratic behaviour at her sister’s house (starting with stripping completely naked to swim in a lake, and climaxing with kicking Ted down the stairs), and her time in the cult (sexually abused by Patrick, shooting in the woods). Though the pace is slow and steady, it is never boring; rather, it’s similar to sixties horror like Rosemary’s Baby, in that it seems to constantly be building to its climax, which comes in the form of a home invasion that will surprise even the most hardened viewer. It’s a tricky film to really get into, as Martha is a cold, impassive character who buttons up her traumas to her sister, and is convinced by the other members of the cult that all the abuse suffered on the farm is for the best, leading to Martha (or Marcy May, as she is christened by Patrick and the cult members) never quite knowing how to react, and we as an audience never really understand what is going through her head.
I was genuinely gobsmacked when I discovered this was Elizabeth Olsen’s first film role, because this is the kind of film actresses usually give after years and years of work. Natalie Portman had been acting for 16 years when she gave her Oscar winning performance in Black Swan; Kate Winslet had 14 years when she won for The Reader, and so on. Olsen had precisely 0 years of acting on her when she starred in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she gives a performance that is completely deserving of every award she could win. That she didn’t win the Academy Award is unfair; that she wasn’t even nominated is a travesty, as she gave one of the best performances of the year, and in a year when several talents (Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, and Olivia Colman, to name but three) were left out of the voting, hers is one of the most unfair. In the supporting cast, there’s only one stand out, but it is a hell of a performance: John Hawkes as the sinister Patrick. Whether serenading Martha on the guitar or raping another innocent young member of the group, he is enigmatic but unpleasant, skinny but powerful, soft but menacing. It’s a surprisingly subtle performance for what could in the wrong hands be a simple villain, and Hawke was also deserving of more recognition than he got.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not in the slightest bit in the easy film; it’s creepy, awkward and not often clear in its narrative. Durkin has clearly made the decision to leave questions unanswered, and show rather than tell, but it doesn’t make the film easy for audiences. Though the performances are consistently good, especially from the two leads, the characters are stubbornly written and are all tough to really warm to or root for (we root for Martha because we witness the abuse she faces, but she isn’t always sympathetic). Ultimately, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an insidious, disturbing and very good film, with great acting and tense direction, that is so deliberately difficult and obtuse that it becomes an easy film to admire, but a harder film to like.
By Harry Ford