I had high hopes when I started out watching Martha Marcy May Marlene. I’d read the rave reviews for the story, for director and writer Sean Durkin’s work, Elizabeth Olsen’s inspired performance as a psychologically-damaged ingenue, freshly sprung from the arms of a charismatic cult leader. Unfortunately, and I am most definitely in the minority here, I found the movie a tad slow moving and slightly obscure. Additionally (and pettily) – and I’m just going to say it – I hate the title of this film.
The movie kicks off promisingly with a grungy looking young woman (Martha aka Marcy May aka Marlene) escaping from the home where she lives with some type of a cult-like “family”. One of the cult members finds her eating at a diner in town and tries to talk her into returning with him. She refuses, all the while looking terrified and flinching when he approaches her for a goodbye kiss on the cheek. We next see her making a call from the payphone outside the diner, contacting the only family member she has left – her sister (played by American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson) for help. Martha (her real name) then goes to live with her wealthy sister and husband in the hopes of returning to a somewhat normal life. It is obvious from the beginning though, that she has been damaged by her years with the cult and perhaps suffers some type of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The film slowly reveals to us through flashbacks the story behind Martha’s integration into and life with the cult as she tries to enter back into her previous life as a normal young woman. Through several clever cuts we are able to see how Martha was easily seduced into her life with the cult, along with several increasingly sinister turns which would eventually lead to her defection from it. As the film progresses, seemingly so does Martha’s descent into madness and by the end it is not hugely obvious whether or not the events Martha sees are reality or just perceived that way by her alone. We are left unsure of Martha’s fate.
The film had it’s moments and I did really want to like it. Elizabeth Olsen actually caught me off guard and impressed me with her performance in the lead role. The beautiful scenery of the home where Martha takes residence with her sister and her sister’s husband is a nice contrast to the slow, creepy and dirty-looking horror of her life with the cult. However, I found the movie a little slow moving in parts. I wasn’t looking for any type of extreme action or anything like that, but I found myself most intrigued by the film during the scenes with the cult. The more shocking moments that occur during Martha’s time living with her sister are spliced with many dragged out scenes that felt sleepy and druggy – but perhaps that was the point?
In any case, Martha Marcy May Marlene was a decent movie for a quiet night in – worth a watch but perhaps not entirely worthy of the heaps of praise it has received from critics so far.