Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Posted on:

Cult Following

When the lost Martha is inducted into her boyfriend’s “commune”, the first act of group leader Patrick, a Catskills Christ made of sinew, beard and vest, is to change her name. “You look like a Marcy May” he tells her. His attempt at flushing away her past identity and imprinting anew goes from there, including the stipulation that the girls should assume the identity of Marlene when answering the house phone. It isn’t long before “Marcy May” is physically as well as psychologically branded. One horrific scene has Martha awaken mid-way through her inaugural rape by Patrick. Her “buddy”, the female friend assigned to the new arrival to smooth over doubts, recasts the violation as a spiritual joining with the talismanic leader, though you can see reality’s attempt at breaking through etched on the new girl’s face. “We’ve all done it,” her handler assures her, “so it can’t be wrong, can it?”

Sean Durkin’s film is a mesmeric investigation into how people get subsumed into such cults. Patrick’s system of indoctrination and subsumption is marked by its matter-of-factness and quiet brutality. No sooner has Martha been deflowered, emotionally lassoed, with Patrick selling himself as a replacement Father figure for her absent Pop, and cut off from contact with the outside world, she’s helping to ensnare a new recruit with the same reassuring female friend routine. Watching Martha add a knock out drug to the newbie’s herbal cocktail and hold her hand as she sits in a virginal white robe awaiting her initiation, is more disturbing than that first rape. All the while Elizabeth Olsen, excellent in every scene, manages to look less sedate than the others, with just enough doubt showing behind the eyes to allow for her escape. This could have been retitled Cognitive Dissonance: The Movie.

Durkin’s keen that we should understand what catches the lascivious eye of Patrick and his army of libidinous male scouts. He eroticises Martha, turning her into a nymphet for our delectation. His camera focuses on her figure, especially her breasts, the full shape glanced from the side as she’s changing, the cleavage leered upon as she cleans on her knees, erect nipples cameoing on a cold lake. She’s dressed like a virgin sacrifice for her sister’s house party (a consideration for Patrick, whose girls are encouraged to think of their initial violation as their first time); one of many callbacks to her cult experience; and she’s often shot through a milky white gauze, which we’ll take on trust is no error in cinematography.

Pages: 1 2

Directed by:Sean Durkin

Country: US

Year: 2011

Running Time: 102 mins

Certificate: 15


One Response

  1. dave samuelson says:

    I was alternately intrigued, moved and horrified by this film and impressed by its masterful use of barely signaled flashbacks and Martha’s total inability to express her alarming memories.

    The lack of conclusion is particularly unsettling. Although Martha has good reason for paranoia, the mysterious car that may be following the family on the way to a treatment facility seems gratuitous.