MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)
Directed by Sean Durkin
Fox Searchlight, 102 mins. Rated R (nudity, violence, sexual assault)
* * * *
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are this generation’s Ava and Zsa Zsa Gabor–trashy tabloid fodder and the butt of countless jokes. Please, please, please do not extend the twins’ helium celebrity to younger sister Elizabeth; as she proves in the deeply disturbing Martha Marcy May Marlene, she is a weighty and serious young actress from whom will see marvelous things. (She also possesses a fresh, natural beauty that her airbrushed sisters can’t touch.)
This film follows a young woman who was born as Martha. She becomes Marcy Mae when she falls in with an upstate New York quasi-religious cult and Marlene is a phone pseudonym if any outsider calls. But Marcy Mae is the real problem; it’s the handle given to her by the Svengali-like cult leader, Patrick, played with demonic intensity by John Hawkes (who was Teardrop in Winter’s Bone). Hawkes’ wiry body and chiseled face evoke a younger Sean Penn, and he’s every bit as creepy as Penn in one of his dance-on-the-razor roles. Patrick is a mash-up of David Koresh and Charles Manson; that is, a psychotic charismatic who cajoles and love bombs his followers as prelude to gaining their consent for unspeakable acts such as crime sprees. So thoroughly does he hold sway over his flock that female members willingly prepare relaxing drugs to relax new recruits for their initiation: being sodomized by Patrick. The cardinal cult rule is that Patrick’s wisdom cannot be questioned.
Martha, though, does the thing a cult member isn’t supposed to do: she allows her conscience to consider things done in the name of alleged greater glory. This prompts her to flee the cult and seek refuge with Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a sister from whom she has long been estranged. But is she any better off with Lucy and her self-absorbed Yuppie husband Ted? (The latter role is played with British pretension by the talented Hugh Dancy.) Lucy wants to be supportive, but she’s thoroughly bourgeois and Martha has become semi-feral. The clash between her desire for social respectability and Martha’s asocial behavior has Lucy frazzled and has driven Martha to the borders of insanity. In fact, Martha has become so unhinged from what happened in the cult and her inability to resocialize that neither she nor we can discern what is real and what is imagined. Are Martha, Lucy, and Ted in great danger? Is Martha being stalked by the vengeful cult, or is she tormented by inner demons? Those familiar with the Bible will recognize Martha as one of the two sisters of Lazarus. Legend holds that she later wandered to Provence, where she pacified the Tarasque, a monster that terrorized locals. This Martha, however, remains in the grips of so many dragons that she could have easily been named Sibyl.
As you’ve no doubt surmised, this isn’t exactly a first-date film! But it’s a damned good one and it’s way scarier than the average slasher film for the simple reason that it’s plausible rather than fanciful. Most of us smugly assume that we would never fall prey to a cult; this film suggests just how easy it is for a vivacious and bright young person to do so–especially one trying to make sense of past disappointments (and who isn’t?).
Olsen is simply stunning as Martha, both physically and psychically. She exudes so much vulnerability that you slowly begin to see her as a cork bobbing on choppy waters and marvel at the inner resources she had to marshal in order to make the inner-directed decision to flee the cult. Does she or doesn’t she escape? I’ll only say that you won’t escape thinking about this film long after the final credits have rolled. Keep your eyes peeled for Ms. Olsen. And don’t call her Mary-Kate or Ashley!