Imagine a life without a career. With success that’s measured by your own peace and contentedness rather than money or possessions. Imagine a life wherein you share your best, most intimate moments with others like you, people who’ve positively impacted your life and for whom you care, deeply. Imagine not waking to an alarm, not balancing your checkbook, not competing with co-workers for peak season vacation days. Imagine living on a piece of land whose beauty shocks and inspires you and whose fertility feeds and sustains you. Such is the life young Martha seeks and finds on a gorgeous little farmhouse in New England. But such a life comes with its own hardships, and with great compromise.
Such is the story writer and director Sean Durkin slowly and beautifully unfolds in the disquieting Martha Marcy May Marlene. The film is slowly paced but never does it lose you. On the contrary, it dishes out its story in increments, each one hooking you a little more, a little more until you’re so engrossed, you’re leaning close to catch every word and trying to notice every minute detail so as not to miss a beat.
John Hawkes plays Patrick, the apparent leader of a commune-style farmhouse wherein several young men and women voluntarily live, including the flick’s protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olson). Patrick wears the same white V-neck in nearly every scene, a paper thin shirt that shows every dip in his sternum, the veins in his arms more prominent than his stringy muscles, giving him the look of a weasel which suits his character well except when he masterfully delivers his lines. His words have the bold sound of forthcoming honesty but in fact hide something sinister, a cleverly manipulative trick in every sentence that allows him to simultaneously gain the trust of and assert dominance over the pack of barely adult kids he’s amassed. In the first few minutes, we see Martha leave the farmhouse in the quiet hours of early morning. She hides in the woods while her companions chase after her and calls her sister once she reaches a pay phone. Her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), picks her up and takes her to her home in Connecticut, some three hours away. Soon, it’s revealed that Martha (called Marcy May by her farmhouse cohabitants) has been estranged from her big sister for a couple of years.
The movie cuts back and forth between the present and the recent past, slowly piecing together Martha’s life at the commune and her life with her sister, two lifestyles that couldn’t be more different. As you may have already guessed, the group of young people at the farmhouse is, essentially, a cult led by Patrick whose presence is nothing if not chilling. It is unclear what drove Martha to such a place and made her vulnerable to its manipulations but she is fairly effectively brain washed while there and Olson’s performance offers a painfully real look at the kind of dissociative personality disorder she develops from it. She tries to function as a normal part of society once back with her sister but can’t quite get it right and when Lucy rightfully lashes out at her for behaving inappropriately, Martha sharply alternates between pitiful apologies and sharp-tongued insults. One of the many things she learned with Patrick is how to hurt and trick using nothing but words.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet powerhouse of a film offering gorgeous scenery and exceptional performances. It didn’t get a lot of publicity and I understand why; it doesn’t have mass appeal. But it is a gem of a film and not only film students and cinemaphiles will love it. Everyone who enjoys a good story well-told will be pleased. It’s far from a feel-good movie. But its themes revolving around relationships and identity will resonate with you; its haunting images and outstanding performances will stick with you long after the movie’s end.