Martha, you look like a Marcy May.
Very few movies make me wonder how they could write the script. The big budget movies, the spy thrillers, the genre movies, those are all pretty easy for me to imagine imagining. A part of it is imagining how the writer thought it was ever getting made, but that’s the second question. It’s the small, quietly crazy stuff that strikes me as difficult to even contemplate writing about. It’s all in the details, creating increasingly hurtful situations. I guess you just need something to get you started. You need a premise. What happens when you leave a cult? I’m not easily disturbed, but man did Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) disturb me.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has run away and reconnected with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is now staying in Connecticut with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). She’s acting peculiarly, which is understandable, considering that she’s just left a deranged cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes). Martha’s memories let us into that world and it isn’t pretty. Lucy and Ted try to deal with her, but her behavior is only getting worse.
This is pretty dark stuff. I was pretty much riveted most of the time, so I suppose it was good. The ending was like a firm slap in the face right on the way out, so if I’m a little incoherent, please forgive me.
Olsen is quite good. There are moments where she missed the mark. In a way, the character can go anywhere and call it correct—especially when you’re as disturbed as she has to be—but she seems too lucid. The same can be said for the writing (by director Sean Durkin). With this much psychological influence you can basically lay anything out there and be plausible. Have you ever heard a doctor say, “No, that’s not possible”? Of course you don’t, it’s happening Doctor, it has to be possible. “Stung by a bee and now your pupils have turned mauve? Ah, yes, that can sometimes happen.”
Whenever a new atrocity happens to Martha, many will wonder, “Why is she not leaving?” But the second thought is, “Then again, this stuff happens to people. People join cults. I guess…they…just take it.” I tend to think of cults like a secret society, the formerly popular view of Masons, that sort of thing. But this ain’t that. It isn’t even the Kool Aid kind of millennialist cult. This one is the kind of cult a motivational speaker would create if he were also a hillbilly.
It’s so disturbing. If I wrote this script, I would be afraid to be alone with myself. What dark place did this come from? I suppose it’s possible that these thoughts, when they just spill out on the page aren’t necessarily charged with the level of emotion you get when the thing happens in front of you. Still, it’s fearless.
Music by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is very good. If I were a psycho with that kind of song writing ability, I might go in for a little cult leadership myself.
Playing the normals, Paulson and Dancy are very good. I know Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-07), which is a great show (and she great in it). She plays the role so normal that it’s noteworthy. I imagine the temptation to make something happen was there, but was appropriately resisted. Dancy as the somewhat selfish, high powered normal is also effective.
As for the cult folk, they fill their given roles. None of the characters are particularly powerful. Patrick as the leader had the greatest opportunity for playing a spooky character, but doesn’t particularly. The stuff he does is absolutely spooky, don’t worry, but I’m never in his spell and so doesn’t bridge that gap. Again, in the sense that there are no wrong answers, this could signify something. That’s a question of intention.
If you like being deeply and depressingly disturbed, then you should buy this movie. If not, I think this is worth watching, but don’t do it alone.