This film begins with a break for freedom. Its heroine – Martha (the name given to her by her family), or Marcy May (the name given to her by Patrick, whom she met two years earlier), or Marlene (the name she’d been instructed to use whenever she answered Patrick’s telephone) – decides to run away from the community she’s lived in during the past two years.
The community, we learn, is a weird hippy-esque cult that lives on a farm in the Catskill Mountains and has Patrick as its leader. Martha – let’s call her that – initially found the cult welcoming and enjoyed the companionship of its naïve but seemingly well-meaning members, companionship that’d obviously been missing from her life before then. But Patrick’s cult, Martha gradually discovered, had a sinister side and lately she’d witnessed some seriously bad goings-on. Indeed, it’s an early narrative weakness of the film that the cult-members should be so lackadaisical about letting Martha escape, considering what she now knows about them.
Anyway, escape Martha does. She manages to contact her sister Lucy, who takes her to her fancy lakeside house in rural Connecticut where she lives with her high-flying English architect husband Ted. Though she seems to be safely removed from Patrick and his followers here, Martha is haunted by flashbacks to her time with the cult – flashbacks that help to fill in the film’s audience on what she’d been through during the past two years – and she has severe problems adjusting to her new situation with her affluent sister and brother-in-law. Worse, she doesn’t tell Lucy about her experiences – she merely alludes to spending two years with an abusive boyfriend, which in a way isn’t far from the truth. This finally leads Lucy and Ted to conclude, from Martha’s erratic behaviour, that they’ve taken a basket-case into her home. And, towards the film’s end, there are disturbing hints that things are not going to finish well for Martha, Lucy or Ted at all.
One thing is clear about Martha Marcy May Marlene – director Sean Durkin is well-served by his principal actresses and actor. Elizabeth Olsen is excellent as the hapless multi-named title character, repulsed by the cult’s excesses and yet still conditioned by it – so much so that it’s obvious she hasn’t, in her head, escaped at all. Also good is Sarah Paulson as the materialist but well-intentioned Lucy, who probably would have been able to help Martha if she’d only known what her kid sister had been subjected to in the past years.
And the film marks another highpoint on the acting CV of John Hawkes. As cult-leader Patrick, Hawkes gives a convincing portrayal of a man who has the charisma to persuade lonely and damaged young people to join his flock but who, once he’s lured them in, exploits them mentally, physically and sexually. Hawkes’ character is in fact a photographic negative of the meth-addled Uncle Teardrop whom he played in Winter’s Bone. Teardrop was essentially a good guy, but had some scary bits on the surface. Outwardly, Patrick has some attractive features – during the cult’s evening get-togethers, for example, he shows himself to be a virtuoso guitar player and folk singer – but underneath he’s a nasty piece of work.
Performances aside, the film’s main strength lies in how it depicts both the weirdness and the shabbiness of life in a rural American cult. Patrick is the intellectual alpha male of the misshapen, misguided society he’s constructed. The other men there are younger but dozens of points below him on the IQ scale – and, incidentally, so musically talentless that their attempts at guitar-playing during the cult’s open-mic sessions make James Blunt sound like Django Reinhardt. Like dogs skulking for morsels around their master’s dinner table, they wait for Patrick to lose interest in the cult’s recent female recruits – which invariably happens when another one joins – so that they can have their way with them instead.
Meanwhile, the cult members are semi-stupefied by a lack of food and their attempts at working the farm look pretty hopeless. (As the son of a sheep farmer in the Scottish Borders, I think I’m qualified to comment on the low quality of their agricultural skills.) Most of the cult’s material and spiritual bankruptcy is suggested rather than shown, however, with director Durkin revealing the true state of things through snatches of incidental conversation as the film progresses.
Unfortunately, the film is less convincing when it deals with the money-is-everything existence of Lucy and Ted. It has an opportunity to suggest that Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, with their oversized house, fast-and-loud speedboat, closets of expensive clothes and never-ending job stresses, are as much prisoners of their own culture as Martha was a prisoner of Patrick’s culture on the farm. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for their situation, however, especially as Ted comes across as a porcine London Yuppie knob-end – someone who probably spent the early years of Tony Blair’s premiership hoovering tons of cocaine up his nose.
Overall, though, it’s an effective film and one that’s worth catching. I’d give it three out of four – a Martha Marcy May, if not quite a Marlene.