Movie Review: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
This is a guest post from Carrie Nelson.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a story told in fragments. Interspersed in the narrative are flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations, so it isn’t always clear what events are happening when, and which ones are actually happening at all. But that’s part of the power of the film – the fragments set an uneasy tone, allowing the viewer to easily slip into the mindset of the heroine as her sense of self and reality slowly unravel.
When we meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), she is escaping from a cult in the Catskills. Once she contacts and reunites with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), we learn that she has been out of touch with her family (and ostensibly living with the cult) for two years. The film chronicles Martha’s adjustment to life in a wealthy Connecticut suburb with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), all while Martha privately reflects on the traumatic experiences she’s left behind.
Through flashbacks, we learn that charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) gave Martha the name Marcy May when she first visits his wilderness compound. At first, Patrick’s home seems like a harmless hippie commune, with rotating chore lists, sustainable gardening and guitar sing-alongs. Soon, though, the façade disappears, and Marcy May is stuck in an ongoing cycle of abuse. At the risk of giving too much away, I will say that one of the more disturbing elements of the film is watching Marcy May transform from the abused to the enabler of abuse. She buys into Patrick’s manipulations so easily that by the time she realizes what’s happened, too much damage has already been done.
We never learn much about Martha’s life before she became Marcy May, but the lack of information does not take away from the audience’s ability to connect to the character. Through her conversations with Lucy, we understand that Martha spent much of her adolescence without close family ties. Lucy was in college when Martha needed a support system, but the sisters never had a close bond. The viewer gets the sense that Martha did not have much of a plan after graduating from high school – not college, not job prospects, not reuniting with her sister. She was drifting, looking for a purpose, which is how she falls in with Patrick. She has nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to – why wouldn’t she connect with such a group? Though we don’t know the specifics of Martha’s history, she is developed strongly enough that her actions are plausible, believable and even disturbingly realistic.
One of the strengths of the film is the emphasis it places on female relationships. The core of the film is Martha’s relationship with Lucy at home and Marcy May’s relationship with Zoe (Louisa Krause), Sarah (Julia Garner) and Katie (Maria Dizzia) at Patrick’s. Much like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, these relationships take place within the confines of patriarchal communities. In Ted and Lucy’s marriage, Ted is the head of the household. He takes issue with Martha moving in with them, and his actions – and the stress he puts on both Lucy and Martha – strain the already tenuous relationship between the sisters. In the cult, the male members are overtly privileged over the female members. In the opening scene, we see that the women in Patrick’s house are not allowed to eat dinner until the men have finished. Chores appear to be segregated by gender, with the men chopping wood and the women sewing, cooking and childrearing. There’s also an incredibly creepy moment when we learn that the children born on the compound, all fathered by Patrick, are all male. The audience never learns what happens to the female babies, but the insinuation is horrifying.
And still, in both of these environments, bonds between women flourish. Martha and Lucy have their differences, but it is clear that they both want to have a relationship again, and they are determined to do whatever they can to make that possible, even while Ted makes Martha feel threatened and unwelcome. Meanwhile, Zoe takes Marcy May under her wing and eases her into the community; this relationship is mirrored later in the film, when Sarah joins the cult and Marcy May transitions from initiated to initiator. Despite the traumas witnessed and experienced by these women, their relationships stay strong. They share support, laughter and strength in the face of abuse, time and time again. Complex relationships between women aren’t commonplace in film these days, so Martha Marcy May Marlene is a refreshing change of pace in this regard.
I’ve heard Martha Marcy May Marlene repeatedly compared to last year’s Winter’s Bone; both films feature beautiful young blondes in breakout roles, playing tough, dynamic characters, opposite creepy performances by John Hawkes. I love both films, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is sticking with me in a way that Winter’s Bone has not. Though Winter’s Bone is a challenging and emotionally difficult film, its protagonist, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), has closure at the end of her journey. The chilling, ambiguous ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, does not give Martha any sense of closure. No matter how one interprets the ending, it’s clear that it represents the beginning of her horror, rather than her escape from it. The ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene offers no comfort, and its power is still felt long after the credits roll.
I don’t know if Martha Marcy May Marlene can be called a feminist film, per se. None of the underlying messages are inherently feminist or socially progressive; the politics aren’t what make this film interesting. But I do know that this film contains more strong, developed female characters than one typically sees in films today, and the relationships between those women are the backbone of the movie. In particular, Olsen’s performance as Martha/Marcy May is stands out as one of the best I’ve seen this year. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best films you will see this year, featuring some of the most dynamic female characters to appear on-screen this year. Check it out.
Carrie Nelson has previously written aboutPrecious, Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, The Social Network, Sleepaway Camp, and Mad Men for Bitch Flicks. She is a Founder and Editor ofGender Across Bordersand works as a grant writer for an LGBT nonprofit organization in NYC.