Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Year: 2011
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Play time: 
Director: Sean Durkin
Screenwriters: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes

The materialist view of the world, which I share, holds that human brains are nothing but ultra-complicated computers, all of our traits and emotions and insecurities and hang-ups and loves – indeed our entire consciousness – just manifestations of purely physical processes within that amazing organ. When there’s a glitch in the programming, things can go wrong in ways fascinating, terrible, or both: schizophrenia, sleep paralysis, narcolepsy, synesthesia, etc. If you ever feel like you’re not in control of what you’re thinking or feeling, that’s because you aren’t, not really. They say that “the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master”; the jury’s out on the former, but the latter can certainly be true.

Just as a computer can be programmed from the outside, so can the human brain, and that’s where Martha Marcy May Marlene – the best and most nerve-wracking movie of the year so far – is a Viking. The title represents the various identities of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who, in the opening scenes, hightails it away from a cult led by a charming, magnetic, obviously dangerous maniac (John Hawkes). The rest of the film jumps back and forth between her life as part of the cult (whose members live, with dreams of eventual self-sufficiency, in a dilapidated New England farmhouse) and her subsequent attempts to readjust to a normal existence with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and prim English brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) – who both think that Martha has spent the last few years living with some boyfriend.

The doctrine of the cult is fairly generic pablum about purity and spiritual cleanliness and living in the now. The substance is not the point. The leader, Patrick, subordinates his followers not with threats, or even with promises, but with confident authority and subtle attacks on their self-esteem. It is not obvious that Patrick is any sort of true believer; nor does it matter. Everyone else believes in him. Early in the film we see a meal; the men eat first, with Patrick at the head of the table issuing cool supervisory glances; the women wait outside without complaint. Later we see Martha – whom Patrick has dubbed “Marcy May” – drugged and raped, and afterward her female minder comes over to calm her: “I know you’re feeling something bad just happened,” she says. “But we’re all together on this. You have to trust us.”

Back at her sister’s posh country house, Martha has trouble readjusting. Invited to take a swim, she takes off all of her clothes and jumps into the lake. (“There are families here,” yells her horrified sister.) In a scene that nearly gave me a panic attack, she lectures her brother-in-law – who has been housing and feeding her for weeks – on his bourgeois capitalist way of life. When she has trouble sleeping, she climbs into bed with her hosts. “I need you to understand why this is not okay,” she is told. And these are not just oddball habits that she’s picked up. There’s something else, something deeper.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is about the fragility of the psychological constructs that we rely on, day after day, to function in our idiosyncratic, sometimes inexplicable human society. Martha has been “brainwashed” in a much more insidious sense than the one we usually mean. It’s one thing to convince someone that an alien named Xenu has seeded the earth with his malevolent minions; it’s another to systematically break down the foundations of that person’s mind, the adaptations that allow her to meaningfully exist in our world. Here, we see brainwashing of the latter variety, and it’s bone-chillingly plausible.

The movie is unremittingly tense. It has not a sentimental bone in its body. Durkin is a collaborator of Antonio Campos, whose disturbing Afterschool attempted a similar kind of harsh, gnawing suspense but was undercut by Campos’ formal trickery. Here, the compositions are simple and precise; the camerawork unshowy and mostly functional. The screenplay is incredibly impressive in the way it captures the dynamics of the cult; watch for how much is accomplished by tone of voice, body language, subtle deception. Elizabeth Olsen’s tough, nervy performance anchors everything.

Here’s a film that gets at something deeply unsettling about the human condition. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not “fun” to watch, though it’s engaging and the 100 minutes fly by. The ending provides no relief, suggesting that the protagonist is forever stuck in a terrifying purgatory between “Martha” and “Marcy May.” (The nature of “Marlene” I leave for you to discover.) If the movie “says” anything, it’s this: none of us are truly secure in who we are. We are vulnerable. This could happen to you.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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