Martha Marcy May Marlene – 2011
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause
So, communal life is not for you…or is it? Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM) starts off with its protagonist (Olsen) looking to escape the life she was living in a group living situation in the Catskills. Other members of the cult go after her, and one of the men catches up with her in a diner. They have a brief conversation, where he reveals that Patrick won’t like it. She will take her chances. A while later, we see her on the phone, calling her sister. She wants away from where she is.
Her older sister, Lucy (Paulson) comes to get her. Woe for her sister and her sister’s husband. Through the rest of the movie we see flashbacks of what she went through in the cult, and what she now puts her family through. There is a lulling method to the presentation, a seamless thread that lets everyone know she is not aware of her surroundings at some times, and at other times, she is too aware. Lucy, for her part, has never been too close to her sister, and she feels responsible for her aimlessness. Martha, the name by which she is known to Lucy, spends a lot of her time being aloof, distant, somewhat helpful, but really kind of an ass. A couple of days into her freeloading off her sister, she discovers that the man her sister lives with, Ted (Dancy), is actually her husband. To this, she laughs.
We find, that like in any cult, the people live like the great unwashed. Men spend their days pretending to be farmers, women clean the house, cook and let the men eat first when they come in. This is all subsidized by getting the women to call their parents and ask for money, and, if necessary, stealing from the affluent. They pretend they are artists, too, strumming the guitar occasionally while the others sit patiently and pretend to like it. The sex, well, you know that is all sorts of messed up. The ones messed up from before prepare the new ones for their “special experience.” Sometimes these experiences lead to children. None of the children are girls, though. Patrick only has boys.
As the multi-named titular character, Olsen gives about as good a performance as one can give. Her character is at once clouded by naïvety and experience all at once. She is a user and willing to be used. She is the perfect younger sibling as loser. Her choices lead her to a spot that is dangerous, and, unable to think of another way, involves the one who loves her to pry her out. Later, when asked why she never replaced her cell phone, she says somewhat arrogantly that she learned to live without it. This of course, ignores the fact that she is living through the grace of others’ good will…and still others’ bad will.
John Hawkes, as cult leader Patrick, is becoming an increasingly masterful presence in everything he does. Starting off as the pissed off gas station attendant who “never said ‘Help Us!‘” in From Dusk Till Dawn to his unforgettable Saul Star in the classic Deadwood, Hawkes has risen to the top of the list of character actors. Here he does much with within a minimal framework. None of his scenes are over the top. More like a viper, laying in wait. We never see any fraying of his edges. We know that he is very comfortably insane, even if some of his constituents are not as comfortable.
The rest of the cast is excellent, whether suffering from the actions of Martha in the beginning, or making an alternate reality with Marcy May and Marlene. Much of this is due to the excellent pacing of Writer/Director Durkin. His film is a string of incredibly smooth segues that make a typical story of what it takes to live in a cult to another level. If the movie seems a little short, it is partly because it flows so well. It would have been nice to have more of a resolution, but what we see works well enough.
(**** out of *****)