A sister, a cult member, an alias – Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene is an assured debut as gripping as it is haunting.
I’ve Got All My Sisters With Me by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard not to fondly recall Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides when watching Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene. Not that it’s derivative in any way, but with its polyonomous title reminiscent of Coppola’s hypnotic daughters Lux, Mary, Cecilia, Therese and Bonny, along with its oneiric, sun-drenched colour palette, Durkin’s film is just as haunting, albeit more self-splintering than suicidal. With a stand-out performance from Elizabeth Olsen, the film quickly forks into Martha’s flight into Lucy and her husband Ted’s arms amidst reminiscences of the polygamous sect she left behind in the Catskills. Critical of the easy conformist aspirations of her newly re-found sister, with her oversized, lakeside summer house, blinkered careerism and grand designs for a family, Martha’s caught between the fractious ties of a loving, forgiving family and the free love of the commune.
That Durkin manages to make the cult even remotely appealing is no small feat. Its nurturing individualism and grow-your-own escapism from the clutches of consumerism and money is a tempting hook, along with its bevy of twenty-something beauties of both sexes, all got up in a selection of ripped, hand-me-down white T-shirts. You might even warily concede to the patrician authority of leader and philosopher Patrick, played with unpredictable intensity by John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone. And yet the farm’s white weather-boarded innocence and its faded glory comeliness is slowly and irreversibly poisoned by its segregated dinners, its drugged night-time rapes and burgling forays into rich neighbours’ homes.
Martha, or in this case Marcy May, is encouraged by the other handmaids not to feel like she’s been raped. But unlike Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale though, these women aren’t for seeding progeny. Instead, sex is a quasi-religious communion with their god on earth, and it’s a leap of faith worthy of a circus acrobat. Patrick is the alpha male to all the girls, and feeding on a mulch of sibling jealousy and the occasional communal carousal, each woman’s adoration of the patriarch is stimulated to a fever pitch, with the lord and master occasionally descending from his ivory tower to encourage, discipline or inspire. There’s not much pseudo-theological or practical reasoning though behind the disciples’ decision to start breaking and entering into wealthy people’s houses, but it’s a convenient way to kibosh any lingering sympathy for the cult when a man defending his all-American right to safeguard his home is gutted with a kitchen knife.
It’s perhaps not so much Martha’s part in this bloody murder, or even the group’s fascistic fascination with obedience and cold-blooded cat murder, but rather the drugging and fostering of newcomers that leaves a bitter, powdery taste in the mouth. And in the end, it’s this maelstrom of guilt, fear and shame which forces her to flee, in a fantastic hand-held scene in which Marcy May bolts through the woodland pursued by white nighty-clad acolytes with all the desperate innocence of child Furies. But as Martha enters her sister’s neat world of aspirational indulgence, she’s caught between the safe calm of family and a fearful longing for the spiritual transports of the cult. It’s an existential anxiety accompanied by a hum, a pulsating thrum that transforms moments in her mundane life in Connecticut into lingering memories of her found family. And some of these transitions are excellently choreographed, the scene in which Marcy May goes up to the attic to lie with Patrick only for Martha to climb into her sister’s conjugal bed amidst Lucy and Ted making love is particularly shocking.
In fact, Durkin makes little of the resemblance between Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes, the one a brawny scruff with a piercing, soul-searching stare, the other a preppy English lawyer Martha barely seems to notice. But the parallel is alluded to as a fear of the male, with Martha agreeing only reluctantly to accompanying Ted on a boat trip, and ultimately as she kicks him down the stairs in a moment of fear and loathing. For Martha, the family home is an almost hostile environment – frustrated at every turn by her sister’s repressive habits, she’s unable to put her feet on the counter or swim naked in the lake for fear of neighbouring children seeing. The scenes of Martha rehabilitating to the real world are perhaps not as tense as the foreboding sequences in the Catskills cult, but even numb and mute, Elizabeth Olsen conveys the confusion of post-traumatic anxiety and longing with great empathy.
These scenes are marked by a half-hearted attempt at sisterly bonding as Martha tries to keep a lid on her recent adventures. But in the end there’s no way out of family recriminations and Durkin’s scenes at the summer house start to swirl in a numb lethargy only broken when Martha makes contact with ‘Marlene’ at the family home, and the growing fear they’ll find her. It’s an anxiety which explodes in a fabulous scene at a house party in which Martha becomes convinced the tee-totalling barman is a cult member and dissolves into apoplexy, subdued again, chillingly, with pills. How they find her without the modern convenience of the internet remains a small mystery, but in a final-reel clincher, catch up with her they do. And as she travels to the city for therapy, their black SUV follows ominously behind.
Durkin leaves his ending and the fate of Martha and her family open. And yet it’s hard to believe the outcome can be positive. After Martha’s hesitations between her two possible lives and the excruciating tension as she shrugs away from telling Lucy and Ted the truth, there’s a desire for resolution and a will to action the film refuses to satisfy. Martha doesn’t overcome her troubles, nor does she make that first step towards recovery by telling her sister. So instead of a story of self-realisation in which Martha strikes out on her own path, Martha Marcy May Marlene delivers a genre final-girl post-credits slashing. The climactic tension, beautiful cinematography and delicious performances deserve better, but like its title and its hero, it’s schizophrenic in the final reel – art-house thriller psychodrama horror.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is released in the UK on 3rd February 2012