XIPHOS TAKES ON CULTS IN MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
I’ve always been interested the psychology of “cults” (and religion in general, it’s the same thing) since it mirrors to some extent the same kind of psychology as boot camp but taken to a much further point. Boot, like joining a cult (or an established religion), is all about breaking the individual down and than building them up while infusing the recruit with the belief that they have have passed over into rarefied air and space and have become one with a higher power and purpose larger than themselves but in reality they are just a cog in the machinery. The military and cults recruit some of the same types, the lonely and discontent and the ones looking for a family and a place to belong. Cults though, actively hunt for the seriously disaffected and mentally weak. Those types wouldn’t survive boot anymore, well at least not Marine boot or Army Infantry basic training. The Air Force, Navy and the rest of the Army basic training they would probably sail right through.
I have just finished watching the movie a little more than an hour ago(when i started writing this which was a week ago) and because of that I think I might not be doing the movie justice. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a confounding film in many regards and while the acting is superb, the writing is mostly good and the directing is fine, I don’t think it’s deserving of the laudatory reviews it has received. I will gladly cop to the fact that I should watch it again. It’s a densely layered movie. In my opinion it’s a very good movie but I think reviewers are giving it such glowing recommendations because it seems to me, the person that has only seen Battle LA this year, that this has been a very weak year for movies so something as good as Martha Marcy May Marlene gets raised up to the level of great.
The movie is about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the younger and the much much less Gollum looking sister to Mary Kate and Ashley), a wayward early 20 something. The movie starts with her sneaking out of what seems to be a rather idyllic looking farm in the Catskills mountains of upstate New York (the farm is only idyllic looking if you’re a fucktard member of the OWS crowd. None of those lazy weakling humps have the backbone to work on a farm even though they claim this is what they want, the worthless piece of shit English majors/baristas.) Martha manages to avoid the rest of her farm mates chasing her through the woods and makes it to a town that she doesn’t know where it is and calls her estranged sister, of two years, to come pick her up. While waiting for her sister, Martha is confronted by another cult member and while he is never overtly threatening he does manage to convey a certain amount of menace while smiling and talking in a conversational manner. This encounter is where the paranoia that engulfs the character later on begins.
Martha’s sister, Lucy (a fine turn by Sarah Paulson), whisks Martha away to a fabulous lake front house in Connecticut. The setting plays an important part in the story in a roundabout way, it has some serious ties to the flashbacks. At this point the movie becomes a two track story. The main story is Martha in real time exhibiting increasingly odd behavior like nonchalantly stripping down to her birthday suit to swim in the lake or walking into her sister’s room and curling up on the bed while Lucy is having sex with her husband. The other track is Martha’s back story in the cult and is told through a series of flashbacks that serve to explain Martha’s increasing erratic and strange behavior and her paranoia. The flashbacks build up as they go. At first things look good for Martha. She has a cool new friend, Zoe, and the seemingly gentle and nice father figure Patrick (played by a John Hawkes who turns in another fantastic performance) seems genuinely interested in her and her well being. As the flashbacks gain steam we come to see that the hippie peace and love notions of the commune are just a facade as more vile and evil things happen to Martha and in her presence and by her.
I think this movie will frustrate many viewers (well the few that will see it, I don’t think it had a wide release), since nothing is ever really resolved. After you watch it you never quite know if Martha is a survivor with PTSD, a liar or mentally ill and fabricated the entire experience as she decompensates. Martha’s actions with her sister point to a person with an onset of some sort of mental illness yet she acts like a person with PTSD and if her flashbacks can be believed, there is a good argument for her having PTSD. So why is the movie being pushed so heavily by critics you might ask? Simple, it’s the acting, writing and the direction. Across the board the acting is stellar with Olsen and Hawkes running away with it, those two are mesmerizing to watch. Olsen plays the emotionally shut down and entirely damaged Martha in a spare and austere manner. Her nearly blank face throughout a lot of the movie is suited to the material. Most of her acting is done with her eyes and in the way she holds herself. Except for some early flashback scenes and some later scenes when the paranoia builds, Martha speaks in a very deliberate semi-monotone. In the flashback she seems more alive and functioning until what she endures at the farm shuts her down emotionally. In those early scenes she has a real smile and her eyes aren’t dead like later on. This performance by Olsen is outstanding. She was able to play the same character as two separate entities which added to the ambiguity of what the character actually experienced. Is what she remembers real or is it part of her delusional state? Added bonus: Olsen nuded up a couple of times and she has some nice juggs. Elizabeth Olsen is definitely the way hotter way more talented Olsen sister.
John Hawkes, this guy is freakin’ great in this movie, like usual. His performance as Patrick is amazing. He embodied the perfect cult leader. Patrick is well read but it’s obvious his education nor diction are great so he comes off as a regular Joe. He’s capable around the farm and knows how to work and can spout inanities at the drop of a hat and seemingly can make up songs directed at new recruits off the top of his head. Patrick’s true strength is that he’s a predator, can smell damage on a person and target the weak, spout the banalities the sad recruits, mostly female, need to hear and gets his followers to willingly enslave themselves to his will. The other source of Patrick’s power is that he can turn on a dime if even slightly challenged and become cold, angry and abusive with a titanic murderous rage… maybe. Misdirection and vagueness rule with Patrick. In one scene it’s implied he killed another cult member in Martha’s presence but we never see it happen nor is it ever referenced but it seemed like he did. The question the viewer is made to ask is did it actually occur?
For directing and writing his first big screen film, Sean Durkin had a sure and steady hand on the reins and made a good looking movie on a budget of $600,000. There weren’t any of the usual problems of most first time directors, like excessive camera tricks or over direction, on display. If this isn’t a fluke film by Durkin there is the possibility that a fresh talent is on the rise in Hollywood. I hope he didn’t use all his mojo up on this movie.
That was the good, now for the not so good and this is what, for me, is keeping the movie in the really good but not great category. First the flashbacks. While handled well, they hemmed in the movie in some ways, the most important being compressing the recruitment process for the cult which is usually a fairly long con type of scenario. In the flashbacks it’s made to seem that Martha shows up at the farm, has a meal, hears a song about her, has something bad happen to her and then she’s a full fledged member all in like a day? Sorry, I can’t suspend my disbelief that much. By telling two separate stories in one movie that is 102 minutes long something had to give and it was the cult part of the story that got short shrift except for the bad things that happen to Martha on the Farm. I think if they spent more time with the cult, like maybe most of the first act, it would have added more to the movie
This can’t end well can it?
The other issues are due to Durkin being a first time writer and director. I know I puffed him up above but his ham-fisted use of imagery and blatant foreshadowing was a bit of a turn off. The obvious parallels between the farm and the lake house and the idea you are forced to draw that Martha’s sister is just like Patrick is as subtle as getting hit in the head with a sledge hammer repeatedly. Also the use of expensive houses with lots of windows juxtaposed against the closed off semi-darkness of the farm isn’t exactly subtle either. As a matter of fact, it’s so unsubtle that even the massively unsubtle hack that is George Romero would probably say “kid, give it rest already, even I wouldn’t be that obvious.” which, from the master of the obvious, is saying something.
Lastly there is the ending. My cursory research online shows that it splits the audience pretty much 50/50. I don’t have a problem with it but I take an entirely different view of the ending than most. I concede the ending does smack more than a bit of trying to have your cake and eat it too. It seems like they couldn’t commit either way to Martha being a cult survivor or nuts. Instead they tried to get both on the table and it didn’t quite work. The aggressive ambiguity really bothers a lot of viewers and in fairness they do have a point, it could have been handled better. It seems like the ending was left deliberately and frustratingly ambiguous just because they could leave it like that. I am not a person that needs to have everything wrapped up and I’m ok with ambiguity, I’m just saying they could have given the ending a little bit more form and it wouldn’t have hurt the objectives that writer/director was going for in any way.
So in the final analysis I recommend this movie. It’s mostly really good with outstanding acting and for a movie that was made on a shoestring budget by a first time director with an actress that has very limited experience and has not been a lead before (who I maintain was cast for access to her sisters’ money. There is no way they didn’t pony up some cabbage at some point. It’s a good thing the hot sister turned out to be good) it’s much better than it has any right to be.