Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mouthful of a title. Just imagine it being your name, as it is for Elizabeth Olsen’s title character in the new film written and directed by newcomer Sean Durkin. Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene are the three names attributed to Olsen’s character at different junctures of the story. Martha is the name she is born with. Marcy May and Marlene are names thrust upon her by a charming reprobate. But the title suggests more than just Martha’s given monikers, it constitutes a person divided into fragments; divisions of an existence based on time, place, and one’s company. Each name represents a broken piece of a young girl’s fractured soul yearning to survive in the two separate worlds she lives in.
The structure of MMMM follows that of two parallel stories told simultaneously – seamlessly weaving back and forth between Martha’s life as a rural cult member and that of a long lost sister in Connecticut. The story begins with Martha having just intentionally excised herself from her surrogate family of the past two years – a mentally sadistic cult led by a magnetic ringleader, Patrick (John Hawkes). For all intents and purposes, the “farm” looks quite appealing to a girl needing a free place to live while playing a part in its functionality; however it becomes rather obvious that all is not right in Denmark. Martha is initiated into the gang by being drugged and raped by the head honcho himself, Patrick. It’s considered a “cleansing”, most likely of all things civilized. It’s a small price to pay for free room and board.
While recovering in the warmth and security of a lake house belonging to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha inadvertently exhibits behavior consistent with a woman who has lived in a barbaric and primitive world. Where sex was as communal as a family picnic back on the farm, it doesn’t occur to Martha that climbing into bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they’re making love is out of line. Nor does it occur to her that not wearing a bathing suit while taking a swim in the same lake as her newly-acquainted brother-in-law would be deemed inappropriate. Such notions of propriety don’t exist in Martha’s universe. Blazing red flags such as these evoke a “What’s wrong with you?” reaction from Lucy, but that’s about it. Lucy has her own issues.
While Martha is safe, physically, she is not safe from the memories and fears that protrude her waking new life. While life on the commune afforded its inhabitants camaraderie and fellowship, it also lit a fire of psychological terror amidst the members and most predominantly within Martha. A common operation of the clan’s was to invade upper middle class homes to steal, almost reverently; the mission seemingly more for political reasons than out of necessity. One such intrusion misfires and the end result leaves a devastating impact on Martha. So besides retrieving wayward Martha, Ted and Lucy’s house feels like an easy target for the clan to come ransacking.
There’s a tone of emptiness that sweeps throughout this debut of director Durkin’s. The existential air is enhanced by his methodical, pensive rhythm which entrances the audience. And the continuous interweaving leaves viewers confused at times, rightfully so. There are times when it’s believed Martha is at one residence when she is really at another. Added to that confusion are the similarities between the farm and Lucy’s residence. While the farm house is isolated, the lake house is even more isolating, giving Martha time and space to fuel her paranoia.
What’s infuriating besides the sickness of the cult’s way of life, is the fact that Martha and her sister Lucy remain emotional and psychological invalids throughout this whole mess. While it’s obvious that Martha – and Lucy – have issues, overcoming these issues isn’t even an option. Though there’s no denying Durkin is a fresh new talent, he has a tendency to beat a dead horse; and in this case, it’s a young woman’s soul – dead upon arrival. It’s the human condition to fall, however it’s also the human condition to overcome, and all wallow and no headway makes for a very tedious and overall soulless experience.