Should a schizoid storytelling device be used to relay a story about a split personality? According to T. Sean Durkin, the young novice writer/director of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the answer is likely a resounding yes. But then the pressing question comes down to, who is actually the center of attention on the screen – the protagonist and her confused pain, or the show and tell filmmaker attempting to impress and dazzle us with bids at being just as creative and mysterious as he can be.
Perhaps there’s a line in Martha Marcy May Marlene that best encapsulates what may or may not be going on in this movie. And that’s one of the many obscure musings emanating from Martha etc., played by Elizabeth Olsen. Which is, ‘Did you ever have a feeling if something is a memory, or something you dreamed?’ Well, I certainly felt the same way, and I’m not even in this movie. Just a perplexed spectator saddled with picking up the narrative pieces.
Olsen, younger sister of those bad girl Olsen twins, is Martha, a withdrawn and tormented young woman who has just fled a back to nature commune up in the Catskills. Which is presided over by a domineering and increasingly malevolent Patrick (John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone), projecting less flamboyant shades of Charles Manson. Though in an odd turn, with increasing implications that Patrick and his followers may have much of a sinister nature to hide, he tries to persuade but makes no aggressive effort to detain her.
Dialing up her wealthy older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a pay phone for help – whom she hasn’t been in touch with for years – Martha seeks shelter with Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) over in upscale suburban waterfront Connecticut. And that neither Lucy nor Martha are thrilled with this hasty arrangement, goes without saying. While Martha begins to exhibit a series of strange when not hostile and anti-social behaviors, presumably attributed to her traumatic and abusive experiences back at the commune. Or is Martha Marcy May Marlene – who picked up her multiple names at the commune – just imagining any or all of this? Only the filmmaker knows for sure.
In any case, Martha is so perpetually self-involved, bratty and intolerable – though the actors, however burdened with whimsically fractured material, give superb performances – and the filmmaker is so similarly distracted himself as he leads audiences on a frustrating, wild goose chase through Martha’s either cult-damaged or possibly longstanding mentally deteriorating mind preceding but further exasperated by the experience. That rather than left to ponder those many elusive enigmas, the viewer may simply conclude, who cares?
The second movie right now, along with Red State, to present cult caricatures, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s exasperating hide and seek cinema suggests an additional notion – that any anti-establishment impulse straying from the mainstream is potentially fraught with pathology. Which is not likely to go over big with the differently minded throngs right now over at Occupy Wall Street. Or Martha’s rant against bourgeois excess at the dinner table over at her sister’s lavish digs, that is dismissed as just another symptom of brainwashing or mental illness, for that matter.