At the beginning of Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaks past sleeping bodies on the floor of a rickety farmhouse and runs into the woods. She is spotted and briefly pursued, but makes it to town. She makes a desperate call to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who comes to collect her and take her to the Connecticut lakeshore vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Martha has run away from an extended stay with a small cult, whose leader Patrick (John Hawkes) had renamed her Marcy May. As she recuperates at Lucy and Ted’s home, she is haunted by the memories of the group. The film moves fluidly between her cult life and the scenes from her new surroundings that trigger Martha’s recollections, the boundary between present reality and memory blurry. The transitions are well-executed. Most jarring are the earliest shifts, since in them we move back to Martha’s arrival at the group’s upstate New York farmland commune. She is relaxed and happy, on a new adventure, in startling contrast to the broken, sluggish young woman we were introduced to. Over the course of the film the Martha of the past is ground through Marcy May into the Martha of the present.
What of that Martha before there was Marcy May? She refuses to talk to Lucy about what has happened to her in the time since they last spoke, insisting that she had only been living with a boyfriend and left. We, of course, get to see plenty of Martha’s time with the group, but nevertheless I shared Lucy’s frustration. How did Martha end up there? She is brought in by her friend Zoe (Louisa Krause) and quickly and readily assimilates to some degree into the group identity, despite the brutal wrongness of the initiation. Why? It might well be an accurate picture of group psychology, but we are left to draw our own conclusions about what drove Martha there in the first place. Just as the cult dominates Martha’s thoughts, to the exclusion of everything else, we too never see beyond it. There is no “before”.
Something similar is true of Patrick, who is the center of the group, and therefore in a way of the film, and yet in the end we see very little of him. We know nothing of his past, nothing of his motivations. Like everything else that Martha has experienced, he just is, which reduces him to little more than images in Martha’s memory. The overall effect is to render the scenes from the past somehow soulless. It would be gratifying to know more, though perhaps this would undermine the lifeless, hallucinatory feeling of the memories.
In the present, once again, Lucy and Ted take on something of the same quality, Martha barely engaging them in any real sense. Ted is hardly an easy character to like: rich, English real-estate developer with money to spare, shuttling between his Connecticut and New York City homes. Comparisons between Patrick and Ted become easy and tempting, as the slightest hint of direction of Martha by her sister’s husband come to carry sinister overtones.
Only once does Martha show real signs of fiery life. Her outlandish behavior and outbursts wear on Lucy and Ted; they cannot understand, because they have no idea of the severity of what she has gone through. Lucy tries to absolve herself of the years-old guilt she feels at not having supported Martha more, and invites Martha to share it. Ted pushes Martha to decide what she might want to do with herself. She explodes. To Lucy she parrots Patrick’s words to her: she is a leader and a teacher. What should she have to feel guilty about? She derides Ted’s materialism, accusing him of equating success with possessions, insisting that there are other ways to live. When cornered, she has lashed out; how much is the ethos of the cult and how much might at last tell us something about who Martha really is?
But soon the flash has subsided and we are left back with Martha’s introversion and almost paranoid anxiety, the color of the other characters once again turned down. Olsen’s performance is gripping throughout, but we are doomed not to really meet Martha or any of the people around her. Whoever she was has been wrung out by abuse and trauma, the cult robbing Martha of her personality and robbing us of our chance to have seen it.