(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight) Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin
The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.
Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.
The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.
What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.
Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.
At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?
Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.
In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.
Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.
At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself to be a fearless actress.
Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.
Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.
The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.
The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.
REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.
REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.
HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
TOMORROW: Piranha 3D