Martha Marcy May Marlene is notable for living on our DVR for approximately 6 months. We had nothing against it in advance of us watching it, we just never got around to it. It took an executive decision to start watching more movies that led us to finally watch the damn thing, because with kids, actually blocking out the time is key. And we’re glad we did, because this is a great movie starring the Olsen sibling that deserves to be a star.
MMMM follows a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who just ran away from a cult based in a Catskills farm. She calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to pick her up, and she stays with her and her husband while recouping from the trauma from which she just escaped. The film jumps between her difficult reintegration with her family and her life at the farm under the control of their leader Patrick (John Hawkes). There’s not much of a plot here; the film is more about what the farm already did to Martha than in what happens to her going forward.
The thing I really liked about MMMM (and I assure you, this movie is not about the Crash Test Dummies song) is that we’re not looking at either Martha’s descent into the madness of the cult, nor her recovery from it. It’s about the unsettling middle space; she knows the damage life at the farm can and has caused, but she still hasn’t shaken all of it out of her system. An early scene shows Martha relaxing at the lake with Lucy, and when she gets up to swim, she strips completely nude and dives in. Lucy yells at her to get out of the water, dumbfounded as to why she would skinny-dip in the afternoon. A later flashback reveals that the cultists would just go commando when they went swimming. This is a fairly innocuous example, and I don’t want to give all of the movie away, but the film uses these kinds of echoes to great effect throughout. Things Martha says, hears, experiences at her sister’s house all have complimentary moments in flashbacks to her time at the cult. It’s a fantastic tool to illustrate the grip the cult had (and still has) on Martha.
The acting is top-notch as well, with Elizabeth Olsen doing such a great job you wonder where the hell Mary-Kate and Ashley were keeping her this whole time. The basement? I dunno. To both Olsen’s and writer/director Sean Durkin’s credit, Martha is a well-realized character. She has many sympathetic moments, but just as many unsympathetic ones as well. At one point, while having dinner with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), she rattles on some of the cult’s boilerplate about living free and eschewing possessions and criticizing Ted for being materialistic. Ted cuts her down, reminding her that she’s staying for free at their house, and that his materialism is what’s allowing her a place to stay. Martha comes off in that scene as obnoxious, and it’s a testament to Olsen’s work that she can have that moment be one of Martha’s many facets rather than the point where you bail on her. You can hear the cult speaking through her then, and know it’s just her fighting through all the indoctrination.
I can see someone complaining that there’s no real plot to speak of, and they’re not wrong, but this is not a mark against the film. The movie is not about Martha settling in with the cult, nor is it about her recovery from it. This isn’t about a journey; it’s about what already happened and where it leaves her at one moment in time. I won’t spoil what happens, but the film does conclude ambiguously, and it’s almost beside the point that it does. MMMM is less a narrative about Martha than it is a tone poem about her current state of mind. It’s a moody film, and it’s one I probably won’t watch again (at least for a while), but that’s not because it’s bad. Rather, it’s such an effective examination of paranoia and what remains of a person’s psyche when she leaves a cult that it seems difficult to watch again like it was Big Lebowski on cable on a Saturday afternoon.
All in all: great job, Sean Durkin. Let’s see what’s next for you.