Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s first feature-length film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is billed as a “psychological thriller”, which is misleading, for the film is actually a character study. There is suspense in the story, but it is never resolved.

The film begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from a Manson-like “cult” she has belonged to for the past two years. She moves in with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The rest of the film interweaves scenes of Martha living with Lucy and Ted, and Martha’s life in the “family”. In the latter, she lives with a group of men and women who live on a farm in the Catskill mountains. The leader of the group is Patrick (John Hawkes), who spouts psycho-babble and plays mind games with the others. Female newcomers to the group are drugged and then raped by Patrick. One of the disturbing things about the film is how the group’s “family” feel masks a brutal male supremacy, and how Martha and the other women find ways to accept this.

To support themselves, members of the “family” sometimes break into peoples’ houses and steal from them. During one break-in, they kill the owner. This incident is apparently what causes Martha to leave, although the film is a little bit vague on this point.

Lucy and Ted are mostly kind to Martha, although they come across as emotionally cold. (It is implied that Martha joined the cult to get away from her family’s coldness.) It doesn’t help that Martha is unable to bring herself to talk about her experiences. She also begins to suffer from a fear that the “family” is pursuing her. Her behavior increasingly causes friction between her and Lucy and Ted, and it also creates strains in the latter’s marriage.

This film is well-made, and it has some powerful moments, but overall I found it claustrophobic and frustrating to watch. Because Martha never opens up to her sister about what happened to her in the “family”, they never interact in a way that is dramatically interesting. Durkin has said in interviews that he wanted to make the point that people who go through experiences with “cults” often have difficulty talking about them immediately afterwards. (Some psychologists and sociologists consider the term “cult” to be problematic. Durkin’s casual use of this word strikes me as a bit glib.) For all I know, this is true, but it’s a small point to make in a feature-length film. The story would have been more interesting if it took place over a longer period of time, and if it showed Martha finding some way to come to terms with her traumatic experiences.

I hope that in his next film Durkin is able to tell a more dramatically satisfying story.

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