First things first, let’s clear up that title Martha Marcy May Marlene. It refers to the various names given to its 20-something lead character (played by the Olsen twins younger, classier sister, Elizabeth). ‘Martha’ is her birth name, what her family calls her. ‘Marcy May’ is the name bestowed on her by cult leader Patrick (scarily good John Hawkes) and ‘Marlene’ is the name all the cult’s women take when speaking to outsiders so that they can’t be identified individually. That Martha has no one name makes explicit the film’s theme – that this malleable woman has no identity, a catalyst in her descent into paranoia. As the film hints (this film is heavy on subtext and intonation), Martha’s been shunted around so much that she makes ‘home’ in a deeply ‘unpleasant’ cult.
That said, the film opens on Martha running away, making a dash through upstate New York woods to…what? Her family members are like strangers. Nevertheless, she makes arrangements to stay at the luxurious lakeside summer home her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). It’s clear some fissure exists between Lucy and Martha. They just can’t connect. Martha’s going quietly mad in designer surroundings, while Lucy thinks a Whole Foods smoothie and a dip in the lake will fix everything.
Stuck between two worlds, Martha can’t bring herself to tattle on the cult – Lucy swallows some lie about her sister’s prolonged absence - and retreats further into disturbing memories. Much has been made of Sean Durkin’s artful depiction of time and memory in this film - the slightest thing (that kale smoothie, a spoon in a glass) sparks a descent into her Martha’s messy mind. The seamless flashbacks pull the rug from under the audience, forcing us to share Martha’s skewed, paranoid perspective.
Her memories are grotesque and compelling. The groupthink embraced during her time at the cult is impossible to unlearn, hence Martha finds herself acting as Marcy May might. Swimming naked in front of her straight-laced brother-in-law, peeing on the floor fully-dressed, even curling up next to Lucy and Ted’s bed while they are having sex. Lucy asks if Martha understands why her behavior’s wrong, and the answer is no; Martha’s moral and social compass is way off.
Yet, part of this film’s intelligence lies in its moral ambiguity. Lucy’s home and Martha’s cult are both ruled by strict codes of behaviour. Only one of them is sanctioned by society. Martha's fairly crazy, but Durkin (who wrote as well as directed this film) gives her space to make lucid arguments against Lucy’s and Ted’s privileged lifestyles - to the extent that the audience doubt the film’s do-gooders too.
As with other recent physiological thrillers like Take Shelter, the finale is problematic. As Martha becomes increasingly paranoid, her memories of her own dark deeds take over her present. The audience doesn’t know if what it’s watching is real or imagined. If you believe what you see, then you’re on the edge of your seat and screaming inside. If it’s Martha’s illusion, then you can be sympathetic, but it's hard to feel scared. Sadly, it’s Martha Marcy May Marlene’s lofty ambition that prevents it from affecting the audience as deeply as it might - although as criticisms go, there are worse.