In Home Viewings: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

After a tumultuous stint with a cult, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finally decides she’s had enough and makes her escape in the wee hours of the morning. She is taken in by Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her overbearing sister who can’t understand the choices Martha has made. At first, Martha feels safe with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Soon, however, she begins to have serious issues with reintegrating herself into society and the strain of what she’s been through becomes readily apparent to all parties, resulting in Martha’s unstable, fragile mental state and a break from reality that may or may not be happening throughout the film’s runtime.

When I see a movie, I usually try my best to avoid any in-depth reviews before writing my own entry. I’ll look at grades, maybe catch a quote or two from some valued critics but I don’t want my review to be subconsciously influenced by the writing of a colleague. Occasionally, however, I find myself needing to browse through the work of others in order to reaffirm my take on the film (not my opinion, mind you, but rather the facts of the film) or even to help me understand what the heck just happened. Such is the case with MMMM.

This is a dense, multi-layered film that should probably be seen more than once before forming a complete opinion. Told in a non-linear fashion, it’s never clear when events are happening or even if they’re happening at all. Martha is a deeply disturbed and borderline dysfunctional human being. Her mental state is often the underlying subject of the film and director Sean Durkin does a masterful job of bringing the audience into her mind. MMMM is an all-together uncomfortable experience and one that raises far more questions than it answers. You are left to wonder if Martha is just being paranoid or whether she has good reason to be fearful as the film builds layer upon layer of tension and Durkin does nothing to help you connect the dots. This would be very frustrating if MMMM wasn’t so exquisitely well-made. There are more genuine heart-pounding moments within this movie than just about any horror film and each scene is purposeful and carefully measured.

Much is asked of this film’s cast and without some stunning performances, it is likely that MMMM becomes a convoluted mess. Paulson and Dancy each play their roles well though neither is asked to do much comparatively. As the cult leader, John Hawkes is hauntingly spectacular. Embodied with equal parts charm and menace, Hawkes shows exactly why damaged and weak-minded individuals would buy into what he’s selling yet he always allows a terrifying sliminess to ooze through his every word and action. He literally made me shiver. Above all, however, MMMM hinges on the work of Olsen. This is a truly difficult and complex role that many quality, well-known actresses might have mishandled. Martha has to be a sympathetic figure and believably troubled but she also has to be mystery with regard to her true mental capacity. For me to say that this character is sane or insane, fully there or mentally retarded would be a guess on my part and that’s a large part of what makes MMMM work. You don’t so much root for Martha but rather you struggle to understand her which makes her circumstances all the more terse and complex. Simply put, this is a star-making performance that should have earned Olsen far more attention than she received and one that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene a significant cinematic entry.