Some movies make for dueling critics. Such is the case with Martha Marcy Mae Marlene which I saw at the Fine Arts Theatre with other local film critics. My colleague Ken Hanke, of the Mountain Xpress, loathed the movie. Except for the movie’s ending, I loved it.
He hated the cinematography. I thought it was perfect. Ken saw the film as a story about “dreary people doing dreary things”–he was utterly bored. I found the characters intensely believable and the story was so menacing I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. In fact, it was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. The only thing Ken and I agreed on was that the performance by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen was awesome.
Were our differing reactions a conflict of aesthetics? Or of gender? Women are threatened in life more often than men are–do we thus respond to stories of women in jeopardy with a sense of familiarity and empathy? Do we identify with the characters more, thus forgiving film flaws that scream out at men? I don’t know. But since the film is garnering quite a bit of buzz, you might want to be aware that not everybody loved it as much as I did. And do pay attention to the MPAA rating–the film is not for everyone.
Elizabeth Olsen is the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Like her sisters, she’s gorgeous, with beguiling eyes and a small, sculpted face. Martha…is her feature film debut and at age 22 she’s made such a favorable impression that there’s already talk of Oscar nomination. The range of emotions Olsen plays is astounding. One minute she’s naïve and vulnerable, the next she’s cruel and vindictive. She goes from brainwashed zombie to lecturing snob and back, most of the time, to incomprehensible paranoiac. Her emotions are so complex she’s like a jigsaw puzzle that’s been thrown on the floor in a thousand pieces and is trying to put itself back together. It’s a role that would challenge any experienced actress, but for one as young as Olsen, the accomplishment is truly remarkable.
A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen), cowering as if she’s a puppy warding off blows, escapes from a farm where a “family” is living. She runs through the forest as several people chase her. Later, at a nearby diner, she is found by a young man who sits himself down opposite her, uninvited. He calls her “Marcy Mae.” He doesn’t overtly threaten her, but when he bends to give her a chaste peck on her cheek, you can feel the hidden threat behind his seemingly innocent gesture. In hysterics, Marcy Mae calls her sister on the pay phone outside. Through the phone lines we hear her sister call her “Martha.”
Martha comes to stay with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s patient new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). It’s a spacious vacation house on a lake, where Ted is trying to have a two-week vacation to recover from his stressful real estate development job. It’s obvious that the sisters, out of touch for two years and both in grief for their dead mother, carry an enormous amount of unresolved tension with one another.
Equally obvious is that there is something seriously wrong with Martha. She sleeps all the time, she flies into rages, and despite her great beauty, she has no social skills. Most disturbing to Lucy and Ted, she does inappropriate things, like sneaking into their bed at night to curl up beside them. As first-time writer/director Sean Durkin shows in his masterful escalation of Martha’s turmoil, she has difficulty distinguishing between memories and reality. She’s suffering classic post-traumatic disorder symptoms, but since she denies anything happened to her, her sister is at a loss what to do.
Martha’s flashbacks to the farm gradually tell us her story. Patrick (John Hawkes) is the charismatic owner of the farm and the family leader. He’s skeleton thin and imagines himself a musician. His hold over the young people, particularly the women, is so repulsive the only word that accurately describes him is satanic. He cajoles them, teases them, insults them, and uses rape as a ritual of love.
Perhaps even more evil than Patrick is Katie (Maria Dizzia), a reptilian little aide de camp, who convinces the women that what might seem like something wrong is really something right. At times, the behavior of Patrick and Katie was so insidious I wanted to run out of the theatre screaming.
Patrick renames Martha to “Marcy Mae,” a way to bond her to her new family and sever ties to her past. When she answers the community wall phone, she identifies herself as “Marlene” as all the women have been told to do, in order to deflect curious outsiders who call the farm. In time, Marcy Mae imitates Katie’s behavior with an innocent new recruit and you want to weep at this example of how women can become complicit in the diminishment of other women.
Intercutting the present with flashbacks to the farm, scene by scene, detail by detail, eventually makes it clear what kind of “family” this bunch really is. What do they do to bring in money? Why do some of the family members go out at out night? “Where do they go?” Marcy Mae asks, but she gets no answer. As the story unfolds its unwholesome layers, you can’t help but think of Charles Manson.
Not only is Martha plagued by the horrible memories of what she experienced at the farm as Marcy Mae, but she grows increasingly fearful that Patrick might come after her. She’s paranoid of course, but as the story builds, we see that she has reason to be. She’s getting crazier, but the more we know her story, the more we can see that she’d be crazy not to be paranoid.
The story defies a synopsis. Let’s just say that as Martha grows more terrified, so do you. By the end of the film, you’re ready to explode. A stranger in an SUV is following the car in which Lucy and Ted are taking Martha to a psychiatric facility. The SUV bumps their car and a man runs out into the road.
And then the screen goes black. That’s it. It just goes black! Did Patrick find Martha and is coming to kill her? Or is she just having another paranoid fantasy? You have to figure it out. Arghghgh! I took half a point off my opinion of the film because of the disappointing ending.
I don’t mind ambiguous endings in general, but I sure hated this one. Lots of other people, I learned from reading the internet, liked it. And Ken Hanke didn’t mind it at all, another area where we disagreed. If nothing else, Martha Marcy Mae Marlene is going to be known as one of the, if not the, most polarizing films of the year.