Martha Marcy May Marlene Movie Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene – is this the most difficult to remember title for a film ever? It takes a real effort to get it right. More than I’m prepared to put in. I’ve been abbreviating it to ‘Martha etc’, and I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me making do with that here.

Faintly irritating and promo-negating as the title is, it’s also clever in its resonances. See, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a damaged young woman whose identity is under threat. She’s as confused about who she is as we are in trying to remember her alternative names in titular order. Early in the movie she flees a cult in which she’s become enmeshed, seeking refuge at the lakeside summer house of older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). And of course, as soon as we become aware of the cult, the title slots into place as a signifier of blurred identity.

Reptilian cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), a none-too-subtle composite of Manson and Koresh, has renamed Martha ‘Marcy May’ (“you look like a Marcy”). This is but one of multiple ways he strips his followers of identity, refashioning them according to his own design. He also has commune members sharing meals out of the same bowls, sharing clothes, sharing each other sexually.

This sort of subjugation of the individual to the cult community – and therefore to the cult leader, whose identity is projected on to the group – is standard practice in cults. The despotic godhead seeks to erode individuality in order to control his subjects as a unified group. Thus, the will of the leader becomes unchallengeable law that replaces all others, and the wildly perverse is normalised. Always fascinating stuff.

The narrative zigzags between past (the cult) and present (the summer house). Thus, bit by bit, the workings of the cult are revealed, along with the dysfunctional, psychologically precarious state in which it has left Martha, who manifests some very odd behaviour back in the ‘normal’ world.

For example, she has been deconditioned to taboos such as public nudity, stripping off in front of Ted to go swimming. She asks inappropriate questions of Lucy and Ted (“Do married people still fuck?”) and enters their bedroom while they are having sex. Her motivation is not to demonstrate disdain for mainstream society values, and she is not acting on voyeuristic impulse. Rather, intruding like this on a copulating couple is within the realm of the ordinary for her, and she seems bemused by Lucy and Ted’s understandably outraged reaction.

Cue flashback to cult setting, in which sex is not private, and orgies are routine (albeit watched over by the snake eyes of Patrick, who sits on the stairs overseeing proceedings as his subjects go for it). Mmkaaay…

Deconditioning of broad society mores is typical cult strategy, but it beggars belief that Martha’s sense of propriety could have been so completely demolished in the relatively short time she was in the grip of the cult (she is shown happening upon the commune as a young adult, and is still only in her early 20s when she escapes to her sister’s). This is one of several plausibility issues.

Another is the cult itself. All the cliches are there: love-bombing, group coercion of wayward members, desensitization to deviant communal values and practices, and of course unconditional subjugation to the leader. Fine. Cults is cults. But this one is built hollow. There is no ‘ism’, no idealistic vision to cement the group.

As leader, Patrick walks the walk and superficially talks the talk. He’s an evil, misogynistic, narcissistic tyrant who has set things up very nicely for himself. Men eat first, while women watch on dutifully awaiting their share of whatever morsels the men leave in their bowls. On the evening of their initiation, new female members are given a sedative by another female commune member who promises them the most wonderful night of their life. Patrick rapes them as they sleep – although to give him his due, savagely enough to wake them up. Lest they harbour reservations about the wonderfulness of the occasion, next morning he showers them with tender attention.

In Martha’s case, he composes a song for her, which he performs as a serenade as the commune sits adoringly at his feet. This was, for me, the high point of the movie, because the scene is most adroitly constructed to contain within it the contradictory essence of the cult – of any cult.

The song is melodically strong, beautiful even, but its lyrical hook is chilling: “She’s just a picture.” Oblivious to the sinister implications of the line, Martha visibly blooms as the song ends. The initiation rape has been transformed into a ‘cleansing ritual’, the rapist into a father-protector/lover and guru with the collective will of the commune in thrall. This is an astute and pithy depiction of the dynamics operating in cults, and the punishment-reward cycle that cult leaders use to devastatingly successful effect.

The problem is that Patrick is a vacant cult leader, powered by charisma alone. Manson and Koresh preached master plans and grandiose agendas. Even the unlikeliest of cult leaders – eg: The Little Pebble – compellingly present a pseudo-coherent belief system that functions to bridge any initial credibility gap for prospective converts and create an illusion of ideological substance. Organic vege farming and initiation rape under sedation ain’t gonna cut it for Patrick, no matter how charismatic you accept he might be in the flesh. Especially when his only purpose seems to be to explore how far he can manipulate the members to his own sick ends. This is a major flaw in the character and film that I couldn’t get past. Ferchrissake, who’s going to be drawn into a cult with so little to it?

Even more problematic is Patrick’s extending the cult’s activities beyond the safe harbour of the commune. His ultimate challenge appears to be to demonstrate his stranglehold over the commune’s collective will by manipulating them into committing random motiveless murder. In the aftermath of a violent attack on the lone occupant of a nearby homestead, he comforts an anguishing Martha by declaring that death is beautiful, a passage to awareness not possible in life. That’s it, folks. Gimme a fn break!

Despite the glaring and unacceptable weaknesses in the Patrick character and reservations over the plausibility of some instances of Martha’s post-cult behaviour, I was hooked on the intrigue of the piece even while suspecting I was being suckered. My hope was that either the narrative would progress to an ingenious resolution (it didn’t) or that the Gordian Knot of Martha’s psychology would be at least partly unravelled (it wasn’t).

By the end – which was infuriatingly vague and confusing – I was left feeling resentful at giving the film 101 minutes of undivided attention when it all came to so little. “Pointless” was my grumpy duo-syllabic summing up when probed for an assessment by my companion as the credits rolled. That view remains intact.

Elizabeth Olsen as Martha

To finish on a positive note, the highlight of the film is Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as Martha. She makes good of a difficult task, shackled by a script that confines the psychological portrait of her character to broad impressionistic brush strokes (ludicrously, Martha never mentions the cult or her experiences therein, even when her sister pleads with her to open up after a climactic meltdown towards the end of the film). Hopefully, Ms Olsen’s next film will give her more room to move. A talent to watch.

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5 thoughts on “Martha Marcy May Marlene Movie Review”

  1. Great analysis of the cult phenomenon, Rolan. I think it’s made clear why Martha joined in the first place (her family history is touched on in a couple of conversations), and why she stays (classic dependence syndrome in the face of appalling abuse). What is not explained is why she decided to escape. Nevertheless I found the whole thing quite psychologically satisfying in the end. She cannot tell Lucy about her experiences because – and she explicitly says this twice – she’s not sure herself what happened to her. I was momentarily taken aback at the end, as I’d expected a resolution, but when it didn’t happen, it made a different kind of sense. Martha will never be sure what happened. Her memory is imperfect, springing as it does from a damaged psyche. She may never be free of Patrick. He may actually be stalking her, or it might be her paranoia. We cannot know the truth. There may even have been an ‘ism’ in the cult, but Martha doesn’t remember it, and she is our only source of information.
    I thought the film had some technical deficiencies. I don’t know who the cinematographer was, or what stock was used, or whether they had a budget for colour grading; these are the kinds of things anyway that a fatter budget can sort, and I imagine the director Sean Durkin will have access to bigger bucks in the future.
    The casting was good; the least successful character for me was brother-in-law Ted, who shed his tolerance and got a bit strident too suddenly for my liking. And on the subject of the casting, how much does Sarah Paulson, who played sister Lucy, look like Nicole Kidman!
    It’s interesting that you found Patrick’s song lovely and chilling. I thought it was naff in the extreme, and an indication of how the cult methods had so deprived Martha of critical faculties that she was entranced!
    All in all, I think it was a pretty good script, well acted, and cleverly put together.

  2. Thanks for you comments, Karen.

    I don’t agree that it’s made clear why Martha joined the cult, but it is alluded to in the terms you mention. And as to her hanging in there once initiated, her “dependence syndrome”, as you put it, is surely a given in any abusive cult situation. That’s just cult-by-numbers. I want more than that.

    As to her escape, I think we can accept that that is at least prompted by the increasingly, erm, challenging ‘extra-commune’ activities. I was OK with that part, and I didn’t mind being left to surmise as to the reasons behind her decision to leave. There were, after all, plenty of possibilities!

    Yes, I know she tells Lucy she’s not sure what happened to her (I was fully present to this film!), but do you really find it so easy to accept that she would have left it at that – and that Lucy wouldn’t have dug more out of her? However unclear she was about her time in the cult, she hadn’t suppressed the whole deal. It beggars belief for me, then, that she wouldn’t have even mentioned it, especially after her meltdown, when she was facing institutionalization as a mental cotcase.

    She didn’t need to “understand the experience” to be easily capable of telling her sister something of the cult. And meltdown aside, I affirm my view that it is ludicrous that she didn’t, both in the natural course of events, and as a device through which we could have learned more about the workings of the cult (preferably via more flashbacks, rather than simply related as recollection by Martha). More importantly, this would have provided an opportunity to put some flesh on the skeletal sketch of Martha’s psychology.

    Your interpretation of the ending is as mine. I didn’t expand on this in my review because the ending didn’t concern me as much as the vague treatment of the cult and Martha that preceded it. I was miffed by it, though, not so much on account of its open-endedness as because I thought it needed to be something special to rescue the rest – and it wasn’t. We’ve seen plenty of endings like this. Like other aspects of the film that troubled me and that I’ve already identified, I saw it as a copout.

    If I’d been script editor, I would have sent the whole thing back with a terse note: ‘More thought required. Re-draft.’ Then waited in keen anticipation for the indignant knock on the door so I could get stuck into the writer and demand more from him in the areas of unacceptable (for me) deficiency.

    If the movie had been beyond salvaging, I wouldn’t have cared, but my contention is that this undeniably intriguing but ultimately pointless film could have been much, much better and brought into sharper focus with just a bit more effort and thought invested into the script – and that annoys me. It’s a waste to get so close, then shirk the hard stuff. See – it’s tough love I’m dealin’ in here!

    I didn’t notice the technical issues you brought up (ironically, in view of my criticisms, probably because I was too caught up in the movie!). Good to have two pairs of critical eyes operating here!

    Agree about Ted.

    Now to the song. Naff? Wait… naff in the extreme? This is not the measured, carefully considered assessment I associate with your brand of criticism. Could it be that you’ve cruelly decided to give ol’ rolanstein a poke to see how far he jumps? Just a teensy tinge of contrarianism goin’ on here, perhaps?

    Cos, frankly, that charge is so wildly over-driven that if it were a golf shot you’d be bidding the ball goodbye as it sliced off deep into the rough, declaring it lost and replacing it with another! Let’s do a quick analysis.

    Are the lyrics naff? Hardly! There are some weak lines that owe their existence to rhyming couplets, so I’m not claiming it’s a great work of poetry, but it’s waay too off-kilter, too enigmatic, too bloody dark to cop “naff” as a label! I’m sure you won’t argue with that.

    Musically? Nice atmospheric chord progression, and the melody is strong enough without being clichéd to have wormed its way into my head on a single listen and stayed there intact. It’s a simple enough folk song, though, rather slight perhaps, and somewhat repetitive. I expect it could quickly outstay its welcome, cos there’s not a lot to it. If you’d pinged it on those points I wouldn’t have thought twice about it (except to assert in my usual gentle manner that one punter’s repetitive might be another’s hypnotic). Even if you’d just not liked it because it didn’t ‘speak’ to you and therefore didn’t accept it could have so profoundly affected Martha, fair enough. People’s tastes vary. But naff? Nup! Nyet! Nein!

    The only aspect of the song that I could imagine – and only just – drawing such a criticism is Patrick’s delivery. Eg: The “lady, lady, lady” filler stuff. For me, this is merely a stylistic convention of folk-pop. I’ve spent far too long under the bonnet of rock/pop/folk to baulk at that, but for those not so steeped in the musical traditions I take for granted, Patrick’s rendition might have been hard to take, I guess.

    I was thinking as he performed the song that it was very 60s folk, with a touch of psychedelia about it, and that I’d heard it before. As it happens, I was right. Your criticism spurred me into researching it, and I’m glad. It took me on an interesting tour to its origins.

    The original, Marcy’s Song, which wears its psychedelic influences upfront, was written by an obscure 60s folkie, Jackson C. Frank, a tragic figure who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and died a pauper. He left only one album of songs, well-regarded by those who make it their business to seek out the hidden subterranean gems (eg: Nick Drake – to my mind one of the towering greats of the 60s/early 70s era – recorded versions of Frank’s songs). This article is well worth a read: Meet the Songwriter Behind the Haunting Song in ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

    I won’t go on, except to say that I maintain that the song sequence was pivotal, and that its inclusion was an inspirational move on the part of the writer/director. Without it, Patrick would have had no cred at all as a cult leader. He is elevated to the pedestal of the extraordinary in apparently giving spontaneous birth to the song moments before he performed it, deftly setting the hook in a hurt, doubting Martha after the savagery of the ‘initiation’ of the night before. Vital, IMO, since we see precious little other evidence of the qualities that apparently irresistibly magnetise him for his followers. And the lyrics are a masterful fit for the movie, even though they’d been written decades earlier.

    Shit, I could have published this as a separate blog post! Hope you haven’t suffered too much through this extended response, but if you have I reckon you deserve it just a smidgeon.

    Incidentally, in the course of my web wanderings in search of info on Marcy’s Song, I came across some excellent reviews of the movie. You might like to check them out. The first is closer to you in his assessment, and I think makes a compelling and very well written case for his positive interpretation and assessment of the film. The second is more in my camp, but makes some good points I didn’t.

    “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (The New Yorker)

    She’s Just a Picture that Lives on My Wall: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”


  3. I did accept that Patrick’s song profoundly affected Martha. When the alpha male singles her out with his gaze while singing a love song – although, on second listen (thanks for the link), the lyrics foreshadow a time when the subject (object, really) becomes the previous fave, a la Browning’s “My Last Duchess” – a psychologically vulnerable young woman will certainly be entranced. But the lyrics … Really: “A smile so inviting, a body so tall”? Naff. Yep. Da. Ja. Admittedly the verses introduce some real enigma later, but I’m having trouble working out whether the couplet “The caravan becomes an altar / The priests are big-arsed gnomes” has any meaning at all.

  4. Yeah, yeah, Karen, that’s a shit line, but you’re clutchin’ at straws and I believe you know it. One bum line doesn’t make the entire song “naff in the extreme” – or naff at all! Doesn’t stain the rest of the lyrics, either. Or the melody. Or the chord structure. Admit it – that naff in the extreme charge was way over the top and doesn’t stand scrutiny.

    As for the enigmatic couple of lines you’ve now picked out – well, isn’t that pedantry? They’re weird and surreal, a bit scary, and enshrouded in mystery; it doesn’t matter whether you can figure out a meaning, does it? It ain’t Browning! It’s just a whacked out 60s pop/folk song written by a bloke who was unhinged, probably in a cloud of dope smoke – and that happens to work uncannily well dropped into this movie (that’s what matters). Besides, I betcha you didn’t even register those lines during the viewing. I know I didn’t.

    And oi, what about all my other points?

    Have I exhausted you inta submission yet? 🙂

    If you didn’t love My Week With Marilyn, next stoush comin’ up! Fun, innit?

    PS: Funny you should mention Browning’s My Last Duchess. A friend and I were discussing the trad form of the dramatic monologue earlier in the week, and he copied and pasted the poem as “an important point of reference.” This guy’s an ex-lecturer with a doctorate in lit, and when he declared the poem “fucking difficult” that was enough for me…started reading it with knitted brow, and a few lines later I moved on to some joke video attachment someone had emailed me. I think I’m suffering from Webtardia.

  5. Nope, standing by my “naff in the extreme” judgement, Rolan. I’ll concede the lovely melody, etc, but clutching at straws I’m not, and your surmise that the song was written by “a bloke who was unhinged, probably in a cloud of dope smoke” doesn’t help your case, while, notwithstanding “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and similar drug-fuelled classics, it does support mine. However, you’re spot on that the song is pivotal, and in fact I recognised that while I was watching. “Ah!” I thought, “now we’re going to get his charisma!” So I was listening, and expecting something really wonderful, so it was a big WTF moment to hear the lines I did. It still worked, though, in the film, and made sense to me that he could have been singing a Wiggles song or anything, and it would have had the same effect on Martha as long as he gave her eye contact.
    Now, for your other points, which I was laughing too much about the misheard line about the big-assed gnomes (or big-ass gnomes, or big ass-gnomes; I’ve switched to the more logical [in this case] US spelling for all the hilarious possibilities, and in case you were wondering, the line is actually “the priests are big as none”, which really clears it up) to respond. The major one was about the fact that Martha didn’t tell Lucy about the cult. I’ve thought about this a bit, and I still think it’s psychologically apt that she didn’t. The film covers only a couple of weeks in the now, doesn’t it? I judge by the evidence of the bruises on Martha’s legs, which have not disappeared by the end. This is not a long time to process what has happened to her, and given the possibility that she has actually participated in major felonies, it’s not surprising to me that she should keep her suspicions under her hat.
    Look, I reckon this was a great movie for discussion, and I’ll be interested to follow the director’s career.
    Haven’t seen My Week With Marilyn yet, but it looks great. I’m keen to see if you will review Shame, as I don’t reckon I could be bothered. I think there was a great story there, but it wasn’t told. Very bleak and the opposite of erotic.
    Oh, and “My Last Duchess”? Year 12 lit: I had a great teacher who performed the monologue, complete with evil tone. The Duke had his last duchess murdered! Very chilling, and in the context of Martha, etc, even more so. Was it in fact left open for us to assume that Patrick or one of the female cult members shot one of the other guys, in the scene where they were practising shooting, and put down an animal? And the throwaway line that Patrick only had male children … aargh.
    Anyway, Rolan, although we will have to agree to disagree on these points, thanks for the robust discussion. No evidence that you have suffered form Webtardia!

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