Dir. Sean Durkin
Consider the word ‘cult’ for a moment, then replace it with something softer, like ‘community,’ ‘idyll’ or ‘farm house.’ You might be able to conjure up images of trees, wooden barns, young people all living and working together in harmony, each with their own way of fitting into the group. What’s the harm in any of that? At least, right up until your leader says something along the lines of “Death is the most beautiful part of life.”
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped such a place, sneaking out in the early morning with a satchel and diving across the road into the woods, emerging sometime later at a diner in the nearby town. It’s not that she wasn’t followed — as she sits there, one of the other ‘family’ members comes to try and take her back — but, rather, there’s at least the idea that she’s free to make her own decisions. This is how Martha comes to stay with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her sister’s British husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their Connecticut lake rental for a couple of weeks. Martha is attempting to assimilate back into regular society after several years of living under the quietly demented hand of Patrick (John Hawkes, brilliant as ever), who keeps family members in line not with shouting and threats but with promises of bliss and harmony — and, of course, his constant sexual gratification. He’s the kind of leader made all the more creepy by the fact that he never has to raise his voice to get what he wants.
Sean Durkin’s film wisely keeps its opinions mostly to itself. This isn’t some kind of ‘Lifetime’ expose of all the cult clichés we’ve come to expect. It’s more of a psycho thriller, albeit with a defused and indirect payoff, something Polanski might have toyed with in-between Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Under her sister’s care, Martha, renamed Marcie May by Patrick (whose first order of business with new recruits is to give them new identities of his choosing), is seriously damaged goods, sleeping all the time, unable to differentiate between her present circumstances and those of the farm, and terrified that her former community members are out in the woods stalking her, much as they did to upstate New York homeowners when she was with them. Durkin uses a rush of metaphoric segues from past to present (jumping into water, or stirring a spoon in a glass), but otherwise keeps the atmosphere oddly dispassionate. We’re not sure if he means to suggest that Martha’s battered psyche can’t fully differentiate between the two, or if there is literally little difference, but either way, the faded, washed out colors and harsh contrast of the shadows maintain an atmosphere of oppression and fear.
Olsen, whom, after all, could have easily just thrown in with her wildly successful older sisters and had a lucrative career, is a revelation as the perpetually out-of-sorts Martha. Sweet and affable one second, sharp as razor wire the next, and haunted the whole while by what she saw — and did — on the farm, Olsen has the almost impossibly complicated task of creating a sympathetic protagonist who is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Like the film itself, we’re never quite sure what to make of her, and that’s exactly as the filmmakers would have it.
1. Olsen, the younger sister of those adorable Olsen twins, knows an earthquake when she feels one. The 22-year-old California native instantly leapt up as soon as the first tremors hit. “That’s an earthquake,” she informed director Sean Durkin and me as the two of us were more or less just sitting there in blithe ignorance. She moved nervously over to the doors as if she might bolt the premises. “Shouldn’t we be in a doorway or something?” Durkin offered. “No,” she said, “that’s a myth.” Meanwhile, I looked out the window from the second floor of our Philadelphia hotel and thought everyone walking up and down the street seemed completely normal, which I announced to the two of them. I assumed it was something in the hotel itself (though, in retrospect, I have no idea what might make the entire place shake like that unless a tank was rolling through it, which should have probably given me equal pause), but, at the end of the interview, the publicist told us it was very much for real. To her continued credit, Olsen didn’t lord it over us that she was right. I suppose she really didn’t have to.
2. She attended a serious acting school! Yes, she was a student at NYC’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, not exactly the place for wannabe bubblegum pop divas. In short, this woman doesn’t just want to be rich and famous, as so many American actors are want to do, she wants to be an actual, honest-to-god actress. You get the sense she has carefully set up her career, not just fallen into a good thing. True, it helps to have world-famous icons as sisters (one would think), but it’s precisely because she could have so easily gone and been famous for something other than her work that her choices become more impressive. Also, it’s not like being related to such Paparazzi royalty doesn’t come with some significant downsides. After a screening and Q&A at a Philly theater last night, a fully grown man approached Olsen to tell her he was a huge fan of her sisters, only he was trembling so much when he said it you could imagine him fantasizing about putting their severed heads on special pink sparkly spikes in his den. Yikes!
3. She chooses roles because she finds them interesting. Really. I mean, come on, by any measure she could have easily slid into a never ending series of romcoms and light, treacly dramadies (You Got That Right! or Christmas With the Grumps), but she has instead chosen, in two of her first film acting roles, to play characters whose grip on reality is highly challenged. First in Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s Silent House, and now, in Sean Durkin’s very good Martha Marcy May Marlene. True, she is taking on a lighter role for her next film (playing opposite Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding) but I wouldn’t take that to mean she’s going to starting ceding her career to a bunch of agents and professional management companies. After she made Silent House, she said she couldn’t stop crying at inappropriate moments for weeks afterward. I’m more than willing to cut her a little slack.
4. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene offered her a great role to play but it’s hardly a self-aggrandizing star vehicle. Her character is vacant, at times petulant, sometimes naïve, sometimes conniving but always eminently watchable. It doesn’t try to make her particularly attractive, emotionally or otherwise, and actually shows her to be more than a bit cruel at times.
5. There’s nothing like a sudden, potentially life-changing emergency to draw attention to the weirdness of our lives. Talk about an unnatural construct: I was in the Sofitel conference room to speak to two people who made a fictional movie about fictional people, in order to record their answers and write an account of what it was like to speak with them. In the aftermath of the quake, we stood there for a moment, kind of staring at one another. If the earthquake had been devastating, if the building had shaken down to the ground, we could have been buried alive (or dead) in concrete slabs and steel girders, the last people we would ever have seen in this world. Instead, we were back in a conference room with a large, fancy wooden table in the center and comfortable chairs that were just barely askew. After a beat, we didn’t really have a choice. We sat back down, laughed nervously, and went back to the question I had just asked. To be human is to be in denial, at nearly all times.