Despite its daunting topic—one woman’s struggle to readjust to life after leaving a cult—audiences may find much to relate to in the new film Martha Marcy May Marlene. In a powerful lead performance, Elizabeth Olsen brings to life the fear, anger, confusion and sorrow of her fractured character. The film, based on director Sean Durkin’s research of former cult members, feels eerily universal as it explores issues of family, belonging and identity.
Great actors are often praised for their ability to transform into vastly different characters. Olsen manages this chameleon-like morphing with thrilling and haunting results. In the beginning scenes, we see her character, Martha, running frantically through the woods, away from a rural cult community. She shakes in fear while calling her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), for help. Clutching her knees waiting for Lucy, Martha looks young and helpless. Physically she appears lithe and fragile, often hunched over, casting her eyes away from Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). She avoids their questions, giving short, opaque answers about her absence.
In the film’s flashbacks we see Martha’s life in the cult, and we meet a different young woman. When she meets the leader Patrick (John Hawkes), this Martha greets him with a wide-eyed curiosity and bright smile. She seems utterly pliant, eager to build a new life in the community. As the extent of Patrick’s control over the community becomes clear, Martha grows harder to read, assuming the same glazed-over expression of the other cult members. Once she settles into the routines of the cult, she changes again, appearing rigid and bulky.
Olsen’s subtle changes in appearance are tied to her character’s state of mind. Durkin’s camera puts Olsen’s figure under our full inspection, often capturing her in uncomfortably close shots. That tactic never felt exploitive because Martha, especially in the scenes after her escape, holds so much of her emotion inside. When she lets something slip, the camera captures her outbursts. The camera’s closeness also creates an intimacy with Martha, despite the unlikeable aspects of her character. In one scene with Lucy, Martha coldly tells her sister, “You’re going to be a terrible mother.” Instead of showing Lucy’s anguish at the statement, the camera focuses on Martha’s face, forcing us to try to understand why she made this declaration.
Ferrying between present and past, Durkin presents Martha in two destructive families. She joins Patrick’s community because she is attracted to the simple life on the farm, the companionship of other young people and the responsibility of having a role in the group. Patrick is the patriarch of the “family,” establishing the rules and choosing to give members new names when they arrive. (He renames Martha “Marcy May.”) He never raises his voice and hardly every uses intimidation; yet his eyes hold an intensity that draws you in. He appears to have an intimate relationship with every member of the community and he plays on these bonds in front of the whole group. In one scene, Patrick encourages Martha to share herself with the community, mentioning an episode in which her father betrayed her. Martha glares worriedly at him, embarrassed that such personal details are being aired in front of her friends. Yet Patrick’s methods seem to deeply affect her. Later, Patrick plays a song for Martha in front of the whole group. She stares at him appreciatively, mesmerized by his personal attention.
Patrick is revealed as a dangerous father figure. In an alarming scene, Martha awakens to find that she’s lying nude in an empty barn with Patrick on top of her. After this forced intercourse Katie, the de facto leader of the women, tries to reassure the shaken Martha. “What happened in that room was good,” she says. “If it wasn’t we all wouldn’t still be here.” Unconvinced, Martha seeks out her closest friend, Zoe, who tells her the pain of rape was actually a “cleansing of the past.” Martha becomes dependent on Patrick’s care, even going to his room for comfort like a child to a parent. When he initiates sexual intercourse, she freezes and silently lets it happen. The camera bears down on Martha, showing the slightest anger in her furrowed brow. Olsen shows Martha’s hunger for family and guidance, while tempering it with flashes of her ambivalence towards Patrick.
Martha goes to great lengths to satisfy her desire for family and purpose. When Sarah, a new member of the community, arrives, Martha shows her the house and lays out the rules. When it is Sarah’s turn to join Patrick in the barn, Martha reassures her, telling her to enjoy her “special night with him.” She practically shoves unsuspecting Sarah into the barn, eager to finish her part in the rape. Sitting outside, Martha looks slightly disillusioned and we wonder if Patrick’s hold is slipping. When Martha witnesses a community member commit a needless, violent act, Patrick takes Martha’s sorrow as personal defiance. The normally gentle leader comes to Martha with rage and recriminations. Martha leaves the cult as a result; yet out of fear, guilt and confusion, she remains silent about what happened.
Unfortunately, Martha’s new life with Lucy is not much better. She looks empty and uncomfortable in the spacious lake house she shares with her sister’s family. She feels lonely having her own room, leading her to try sleeping in Lucy and Ted’s bed. When they discover her curled up beside them, Lucy lashes out at her sister, saying, “What’s wrong with you?” The two sisters have no successful interactions. Lucy is either chastising Martha about her behavior or pleading with Martha for answers about her two-year absence. Lucy does not know how to care for Martha and probably never has.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” brilliantly explores the ways in which painful aspects of our past sometimes explode into our daily lives. Durkin makes this powerfully clear by interweaving flashbacks of Martha’s life at the cult and shots of her mundane life with her sister. At first, these transitions are an artful way to present Martha’s past. But Durkin gradually increases the pace and abruptness of these cuts, obfuscating the difference between past and present. It becomes difficult for Martha, and us, to distinguish between her memories and reality. She even asks Lucy, “Do you ever have the feeing you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” Increasingly, Martha cannot distinguish between her memories of Patrick and the creeping suspicion that he may be trying to recapture her.
The film is successful because it provokes reflection on questions beyond what it means to live on a cult. In Martha’s longing for community, young people may see their own struggle to find somewhere to flourish and find meaning. The depiction of Martha and Lucy, two sisters but utter strangers, may resonate with strained families. Finally there is Martha, who remains a mystery despite dominating the screen for the entire movie. Her true motivations and beliefs remain obscured, giving us only her tangled emotions. Lucy treats her with derision and Patrick with subtle intimidation, but what she most needs is a compassionate ear. Meeting Martha where she is may be the only way to reach this troubled character. But it may also be impossible.