It’s very rare these days that a film can be unsettling without having to resort to cheap tactics to manipulate its audience in to feeling so. Most often horror movies are given the burden of making audiences feel uneasy and queasy while delivering something gory or horrifying. The truth behind “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is that is it the most unsettling and outright disturbing film of the year, and isn’t necessarily what one could call a horror film. It packs in frights in small portions through the persona of the cult our protagonist Martha is hopelessly leashed to, but it isn’t necessarily a horror film. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is about the subtleties, the quirk in facial expressions, and the flick of the face.
This is an indicator that all is not right in Marcy’s world and all will never be. Because this is her reality. This is a world where she’s under developed her sense of awareness, and now must fear for her life every single day. Escaping the clutches of her cult as led by the charismatic and enigmatic Patrick, Marcy is a young girl who will never live a life of solitude. Not so long as she knows and understands she can be snapped up by the cult again. And not just by force, but by her own choosing. And the latter scares her more than anything we can imagine. With a surprising finisher that leads in to an thick sense of ambiguity that will leave audiences talking for days, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” features a world that’s scary and blank, offering no solace for a woman like Martha who is seeking her direction in life, and may one day return to the grasp of her violent cult. Martha is something of an unformed individual who happens in to her “family” one day after she’s had enough of her wild ways.
From the moment she meets Patrick, it’s become clear to the audience (even if it’s not clear to Martha), that she’s no longer free. Especially when group leader, Patrick brands her with the name Marcy May. From what seems like a wholesome commune of farmers and settlers soon becomes a dark and morbid society where the women are subjugated to objects meant solely for caring for the house hold, living with one mind, and doing whatever the men bid of them. In Manson-like uniformity, they’re also never supposed to eat until the men are finished. The violent potential for such a group is explored rather gradually as the film progresses. Director Sean Durkin changes the tone of the film from the first frame where the nice inviting farm land becomes a jail for Martha.
When she retreats after a fateful night and seeks shelter with her long lost sister Lucy, she’s no more out of the way of danger than she was within the confines of the cult. That’s because as she grows to realize it, she knows little about Lucy. She’s built a comfortable living and a future with husband Ted, and Martha intrudes on their lakeside home one day through her own means of living. This inevitably causes a clash of consciousness and ideology as Martha struggles to decide which of her thoughts are her own or those that have been bestowed upon by her former familial setting and leader Patrick. Along the way she lingers in and out of her home setting to recollect moments from her past in the farm that soon become so utterly jarring, the film takes on a rather unsettling tone within the narrative that the viewer will definitely have a tough time following.
But so will Martha, as we see her uncoil slowly among her new living situation that will inevitably turn deadly if she isn’t careful. Director Durkin strings his film along as if something is going to burst. We’re leading up to something but what? In Martha’s life, anything is bound to happen, and nothing will ever be certain. And that’s the harrowing void of safety we’re left with thanks to Martha’s inability to let go of her past, no matter how hard she may try. An eerie and awfully uncomfortable film filled with excellent performances and no easy answers or solutions, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a truly powerful look at lack of direction and how cults can play upon that Elizabeth Olsen is a real find and I hope we see more from her in the future.