What early emotional pain motivated a young woman to vanish without a trace and join a rural cult? Where did she grow up? What was she like before she gave herself over to warped rules of female sexual subservience and nighttime robbery missions? Why did she stay hidden for so long? Why did she finally decide to leave the group? None of this is ever explained in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a sometimes maddening but undeniably intriguing psychological drama about just such a woman. And there are still more unanswered questions in writer-director Sean Durkin’s provocative feature debut, such as this stumper: Why is a breakout star as compelling as Elizabeth Olsen directed to withhold so much when she is capable of conveying so much more?
Olsen — the younger sister of famous twin performing pros Mary-Kate and Ashley, but possessed of striking talent and beauty that need no familial hook — plays Martha. And also Marcy May. As well as Marlene, since all three names describe the same malleable woman. Martha was her name in girlhood. Marcy May is her nom de cult, given to the newcomer by the group’s paternalistic, seductively twisted leader, Patrick (Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes, adding to his impressive collection of skinny, charismatic, dangerous men). Marlene? Well, that’s a variation on her Marcy May disguise. The movie’s title, honestly, is impossible to remember. Even losing one M name would have helped.
Early in the movie, Marcy May escapes from her nameless sect and becomes Martha again. For such a passive girl, it’s a feat of exceptional bravery — one that’s never fully accounted for. She’s taken in by her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who with her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), is the proud owner of a sleek Connecticut lakeside vacation home. And it’s here that Martha begins to relearn the basics of conventional society, including this one: It’s not okay to climb into bed with one’s sister and her husband, especially when they’re having sex. In Martha’s defense, bedding was communal back on the funny farm; so was clothing.
Relearning the niceties of upper-middle-class behavior in an expensive, yuppie-aesthetic weekend house is only one of many hurdles for this damaged young woman. MMMM emphasizes the social and economic discrepancies between Martha’s then and now, and alludes to Lucy’s guilt about not being there for her younger sister in the past. She’s also not really there in the present. If she were more nurturing, Lucy might know to ask, ”What the hell happened to you?” in a way that makes it safe for Martha to answer rather than to go glassy-eyed.
Anyway, Martha’s got bigger challenges. Now that she’s literally out of the woods, she’s in a kind of shock, afflicted with nightmares, hallucinations, and possibly false memories. MMMM’s major achievement is in wordlessly expressing that queasy sense of unstable personality. Sleeping in a real bed or wearing a dress she can call her own, Martha falls prey to dread about the future. The cult may really be out to find her, get her, threaten her — or she could just be confusing her paranoia with reality. In their gleaming state-of-the-art house, with room for the baby they hope to have, Lucy and Ted may be vulnerable to invasion — or Martha might just be reliving past experiences of violent breaking and entering. This is where Olsen flourishes. She carries the story with authority, both emotionally and physically. With her lush shape and grounded stance, she displays the opposite of her sisters’ boho-matchstick style. She looks like she wants to tell us more. And as Martha begins to crack, those discrepancies are mirrored by the evocative cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes (Tiny Furniture), especially as he contrasts the idyllic/scary terrain of the upstate New York farm, where Marcy May lived in modest subsistence, with the idyllic/scary Connecticut lakeside estate, where Martha now wanders, adrift.
Martha Marcy May Marlene leaves a viewer hanging, quite literally, lost in an enveloping fog of mood without resolution. Olsen, meanwhile, definitely marks her arrival. She leaves a viewer excited about the creative future of a young actor who looks like she knows exactly who she is and what she can do. B+