Martha Marcy May Marlene: directed and written by Sean Durkin
Aaaaah, the ups and downs of cult living. Really, Martha Marcy May Marlene is terribly insular in its presentation of its eponymous lead’s journey away from, but not necessarily out of, cult living. And, it’s not so much a definitive criticism of Durkin’s presentation of the film and its issues, and it is a general observance of the way he decides to establish said issues. With the very idiosyncratic name of Martha Marcy May Marlene you would expect, and you would be accurate in that expectation, that Sean Durkin’s first feature would harbour a stout relationship with its lead character and her machinations. Even though the first three minutes, or so, tell us otherwise. Sort of. For, the opening presents us with an eerie calm – a house somewhere in the backwoods. The men eat dinner, while the women wait on the step to enter when the men leave. And, because it’s her film, Martha is the first person to appear in a prolonged shot on her own. Most persons approaching the film probably have done so for the much fêted performance of the young Elizabeth Olsen in the lead, and although we don’t know her Martha yet we’re immediately struck by how haggard, sad and unhappy she is. It’s no surprise, then that we soon see her making her away from this…whatever it is. A nervous departure, a fractured call to a sister, and away we go. But, we never actually leave.
Despite my admittedly flip opening sentence, Martha Marcy May Marlene is not really a cult film, or at least Sean Durkin tries to avoid making it into a cult film. I appreciate his intentions, and yet had Durkin taken more than observatory glance at the cult the film might have been a bit tighter. It’s strange, half of the film is spent in the flashbacks, but we learn an alarmingly little amount of the cult. John Hawkes (very effective here) is gripping, but not altogether charming so I’m not sure what to make of the generally invisible iron grip he wields over his flock. And, when the final reveal of the depths of the cult’s depravity arrive it feels simply like a plot point meant to thrust Martha to leave it and not an organic development of its existence. Thus, ultimately, the creation of the entire cult feels real only on a surface level, and thus not very real at all.