“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory of it’s something you dreamed?”
The first few seconds of the film opens on a secluded ranch; at first sight, we see a peaceful and simple existence. Cut to an unhappy young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) laying the dinner table (for whom, we don’t know) and yet another cut to a table full of men gorging on their food. What’s interesting though, is that a few feet away from the dinner table sit a dozen hungry women waiting for the men to eat, so that they can themselves finish what the men have left over.
The young woman we see earlier preparing the dinner table in the film is Martha, a deeply troubled and ultimately damaged soul. Throughout the film, the viewer is only given hints as to how Martha came to be so damaged, but we do see is how she is ‘rescued’ by Patrick (played stunningly by John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone), a subtly and dangerously charming leader of a small following. This following leads a simple existence; the group, made of around two-dozen men and women, is established in an abandoned ranch house. Shunning the modern world and capitalistic existence, Patrick’s manipulation of the many women in the group attracts an already injured Martha. Martha Marcy May Marlene depicts a heartbreaking journey into a young woman’s guilt and how it gnaws at the already frayed rope between Martha and her sister. The significance of the opening scene in which the men of – what is essentially – the cult resonates throughout the film; while the women are made to do much of the labouring, they are even subjected to rape as part of their initiation or “cleansing” as Patrick believes it to be.
The most interesting part of Martha Marcy May Marlene is the concept of the cult’s effect on Martha’s life, as opposed to a blockbusting thriller about a gang of lawless hippies running around in the fields trying to scare locals. This film is a thought-provoking journey into the mind of a truly isolated human, and the dangers of apathy towards undetected psychological problems.
“Just get a good night’s sleep tonight and you’ll be as good as new tomorrow”
Martha, after running away from Patrick and his cult, calls her only family to rescue her from somewhere in New York. Martha and her sister, Lucy, have been separated for two years and in this time, it is clear that Lucy has made a very comfortable nest for her and her husband in the hills of Connecticut. Lucy’s home, lifestyle, job and even clothes are all stark reminders to Martha about modern life which, of course, she abandoned on arrival to Patrick’s cult. Added to the distance in Martha and Lucy’s sisterhood is Lucy’s husband, Ted – the ambitious, cultured and frustrated yuppie breadwinner does his best to be considerate for his sister-in-law but, as he shouts, “I only get two weeks off a year…I don’t need any more stress.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that depression is an illness. I don’t wish it on anyone, but if they would know how it feels, I swear they would think twice before they just shrug it” – Jonathan Davis
I won’t delve too far into the problems Martha faces while she attempts (if, at all) to integrate with her family, but it should be made clear that although these problems are confused between Martha’s dreams and her memories, the impact these flashbacks have on her are far more detrimental than her family can understand. Ted, Martha’s brother-in-law goes so far as to call her behaviour “insane”.
Martha Marcy May Marlene highlights the dangers of societal misunderstanding as well as a lacklustre attitude towards those with a depressive and anxious state. A quick-fix solution is usually the first suggestion in Western culture – a few visits to ‘the shrink’ should make everything new again. The focus of this film on how a woman deals with an insurmountable amount of trauma, guilt and perpetual anxiety and deals with these incredibly sensitive issues brilliantly. What is important to note is that Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a story; it has no narrative arc, hardly any structure and barely any thrills to constitute as a regular psychological thriller. But what else is important to remember is the dangers self-ordained isolation can cause. Although she is blessed enough to have a genuinely interested in and concerened about her, Martha shuns her sister and in doing so, further isolates herself and causes her sister to believe that she is unreachable.
“It’s not your fault that you learned to measure success by money and possessions. It’s just not the right way to live.”
- Standout performances from John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy as the general ass-hole brother in law.
- The constant confusion between Martha’s memory and dreams is quite frightening. The ending and several scenes throughout the film are so ambiguous to the point of our own confusion.
- The lack of narrative arc and general plot is refreshing. Martha Marcy May Marlene proves that back-stories are not essential to create a haunting and humanly resounding film.
- Great cinematography.
- Some hints as to why Martha has such difficulty in confessing to her sister would elevate both characters immensely, but the film leaves us with the feeling that Martha perhaps truly cannot or even worse – does not – want to be reached.
“I start to think there really is no cure for depression, that happiness is an ongoing battle, and I wonder if it isn’t one I’ll have to fight for as long as I live. I wonder if it’s worth it” – Elizabeth Wurtzel
Martha Marcy May Marlene perfectly relays the lack of understanding between one socially inept woman and her materialistic, future-driven sister and how their values and cultures collide.
Technically, Martha Marcy May Marlene is shot beautifully – there’s a 70s feel throughout the film with an eerie filter that makes Marcy’s experience incredibly confusing. Adding to the tension and terrifying feeling of being unable to distinguish memory from reality is further emphasised with the film’s gorgeous cinematography. It’s basically an hour and a half of an Instagram-med image. A beautifully shot tragic account of one young woman and her uncertain past, present and worst of all – future.