Friday, November 11, 2011
Voices Down the Corridor: Martha Marcy May Marlene
The cult at the center of Martha Marcy May Marlene is everything that Hollywood wants cults to be: menacing, violent, indiscriminately sexual, grungy yet photogenic and not shy about getting naked. Living in seclusion on farmland somewhere in rural New York, they don’t chant in unison or sacrifice animals (at least, not by design), but otherwise they cover all the bases. They are led by a man named Patrick, played by a soft-spoken but forceful John Hawkes, whose scraggly facial hair and wiry frame remind of Charles Manson (he even sings and plays the guitar), and they all happily assume new identities while forgoing any interest in material possessions. There is truth, I suspect, in all of this, but writer/director Sean Durkin doesn’t appear to be aiming at realism. He’s going for atmosphere, and to that end Patrick’s cult is the monster in the dark making things go bump. It’s the stuff of our nightmares.
Why would anyone ever live this way? In observing the shattered psyche of a young woman who is known as Martha in the real world and as Marcy May in Patrick’s cult (except when she answers the phone, in which case, like all the women, she identifies herself as Marlene), Durkin’s film gives us several reasons. A heightened sense of community, fostered by a communal existence within an exclusivist colony, would be one. A strong sense of significance, cultivated by a leader who knows how to look people in the eye and tell them what they need to hear, would be another. But not to be overlooked, at least in Martha’s case, is the steep price of the nonrefundable admission. Don’t misunderstand: Patrick’s cult doesn’t collect dues. It takes from its members something far more expensive: the ability to leave the cult the same people they were when they entered it. Forget about name changes, forget about severed family ties. Once you’ve been the victim of ritualistic sexual assault, or an accomplice to it, you aren’t who you were. Why stay? Because you can’t really go back.
This is what Martha learns the hard way. At the outset of the film, she physically leaves the cult, but mentally and emotionally she never escapes. She is played by Elizabeth Olsen, sister to famous child stars Mary Kate and Ashley, who makes her breakout performance at 21. The film observes Martha as she holes up in the lakefront Connecticut home owned by her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson’s Lucy) and the brother-in-law she didn’t know she had (Hugh Dancy’s Ted) and intermittently flashes back to her past on the farm, memories of which are so raw and oppressing that they consume her present. In another film, if Martha had come back from the horrors of war, we’d all agree she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s haunted, jumpy and distant, torn between the gruesomeness of where she was and the loneliness of where she is. But in this film Martha comes off as just plain crazy, as Durkin milks her suffering as an excuse to ogle the perversity of her experience in the cult.
It’s so obvious that Martha is seriously traumatized that it’s a wonder her sister and brother-in-law, who haven’t got a clue where she’s been all these years, don’t immediately rush her to the nearest hospital when she phones Lucy out of the blue and asks to be picked up at she’s-not-quite-sure-where. Although Paulson and Dancy make the best of their roles, the film’s biggest weakness is the way it’s constantly manipulating these supporting characters in order to heighten the tension. One moment Dancy’s Ted is preaching understanding. The next he’s throwing a hissy about the stresses of his day job and how he can’t let Martha ruin his vacation. Later (mild spoilers), Ted all but gives his wife an “it’s her or me” ultimatum, which wouldn’t be so unreasonable if the tirade hadn’t been sparked by an incident in which Ted startled Martha by waking her up in the middle of the night, chased her up a flight of stairs and then took offense when Martha reflexively kicked at him. (Memo to Ted: just like “no” means no, screaming and running mean “please don’t get closer.”) It’s not that I can’t imagine anyone reacting like this, it’s that I can’t imagine the clearly intelligent Lucy and Ted failing to realize that Martha is a time bomb given that her ticking clock and dynamite are almost always in view.
But, again, Durkin is seeking atmosphere, not realism. And while Martha Marcy May Marlene is heavy-handed in its application of trauma, it’s undeniably effective at depicting the suffocating pressure of trauma’s unrelenting grip. In her first day at the lake house, Martha asks her sister how far they are from where she was picked up. About three hours, Lucy tells her, a long way. But probably not far enough. For Martha, her experiences on the farm will always be too close to home. (Major spoilers ahead.) The film ends with Martha leaving the lake house to head to get some medical help and try to start her life anew but with a black SUV from Patrick’s cult tailing them on their journey, as if ready to run them off the road and do to Martha whatever Patrick does to runaways. Is the car really there? Is Martha just imagining it? It’s impossible to say, but the point is clear: for Martha it doesn’t matter. She may have checked out of Patrick’s cult, but she can never really leave.