Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

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Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tonally downbeat and ultimately evasive study of Martha (Elizabeth Olson), a young woman at odds enough with the social fabric around her to have once fallen for the intrigues of a cult physically and emotionally removed from it; with her inherently and increasingly disturbing time with the cult told in prompted flashbacks, the "present" unfolds as Martha spends time with sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their holiday home retreat, itself designed to defer and dilute the stresses of urban life. As such, the film presents its cult, led by manipulative loner Patrick (John Hawkes), as a kind of physical externalisation of Lucy and Ted, whose barely contained and socially informed aspirations to petty bourgeois values come with the cost of a palpable self-preserving tetchiness. This, I think, is of immediate conceptual interest; it's disappointing, then, that it isn't quite fulfilled.

The film promises thrills and drama but deliberately eschews both. Its writer-director, Sean Durkin, opts instead for a formal elusiveness that matches his eponymous character's discomfort within social boundaries that permit certain kinds of acceptable behaviour. Early cuts between time and space - between the holiday home in the present and the rural ranch in the recent past - establish a commonality between the two. Even while the latter seems so less inhibited or restricted or formal than the former, we understand from the outset that Martha has come to fear it enough to have fled it entirely. Durkin provides enough information in these flashbacks for us to gather their gist; his style is minimalist, relying as it does on our awareness of genre and the media's fascination with cults in general for its repeated initiations process and a transparent hospitality to be nothing other than ominous.

Indeed, in presenting the scenes from Martha's time with the cult as flashbacks, the film ensures its viewers are never in any doubt as to the dangerous and ultimately deadly currents running through it. It also allows Durkin to notch up tension in the way certain plot elements in the present scenes acquire different meanings, such as the strange noises of rocks hitting the roof, which keep Martha up at night - revealed later in the film to be a simple method by which her and the other cult members would distract home-owners at night so that they could break in and rob them with undisturbed abandon.

It's this subtle rearrangement of meaning that gives the film its tensions, for stylistically it remains consistently restrained, to the point of risking an apparent disinterest. Such tensions form an ambiguity. Even when Martha sinks deeper and deeper into a psychological state wherein she projects her haunted past onto the otherwise harmless present, it remains unclear whether or not the noises she hears on the the roof are part of her own mind or are actually happening. Such ambiguity is carried through to the film's final shot, which seems at once to be taking it too far, and yet a perfectly logical anti-wrap-up of a narrative built around dramatic and emotional conundrums (its central contradiction, of why Martha might have been drawn to Patrick's cult in the first place, is only ever hinted at).

One's reaction to this is a matter of preference. For my money, the film's visceral tensions accumulate in inverse proportion to its dramatic plausibility. The strength of one helps to disguise the weakness of the other. There's no real rationale, for instance, for fearing why a bunch of far-removed young'ns up in the Catskills might find Martha, who's shacked up three hours away in upstate New York. One could feasibly argue for her having told the other cult members of her sister and the lakeside idyll to which she and her husband retreat; but if that's the case, we're not shown it. And besides, there are explicit hints that talk of one's past or "the world beyond" is largely precluded from the hermetic tranquillity of the farmhouse.

Still, there's a tension present even beyond the point at which one realises the film is going nowhere. The deliberate decision to treat the two temporal and spatial lines of the narrative with a kind of mutually informing continuity, without an emphasised switch in camera style - both worlds are filtered through Martha's viewpoint as two sides of the same coin intrinsically bound to one another - means that, when the cult turns murderous, its implications permeate Lucy and Ted's ongoing contentment to stay where they are, magnifying a threat to them that likely isn't there in the first place.

Indeed, the realisation that the film isn't quite going anywhere comes attached with another: that any attempt to bring these two worlds together materially (i.e., external to Martha's projections) will be strained and/or forced. You might say this is a case of cleverly matching Martha/Marcy May's recurrent wish to escape whatever situation she's in only for life's monotony to catch up with her - but if this is the case, it seems an all-too-easy formal exercise.

Instead, more interesting questions, transcending that of the cult catching up with her, persist: what are the roots of Martha's fundamental estrangement from contemporary life? what kind of concrete pressures do familial and other relationships present her? what kind of institutional contradictions have served the social withdrawal of a woman whose older sister has created for herself a successful life? to what extent are Martha's observations of Lucy and Ted's acquired inhibitedness true? and, in turn, to what extent is Ted's responding defensive outburst warranted?

The absence of any answers to these questions are doubly disappointing given that the questions themselves form a kind of lingering background to the film and its central character. Never put forth explicitly, their inclusion at all undoes the film dramatically, as it develops with its back to these deeper questions gnawing away at it.

On one level, Durkin's general sensibility carries potential. But if we're right to champion his matter-of-fact treatment of the cult and its appeals, as generally banal by-products of a society accommodating, in particular contexts, the desocialisation of a few willing drop-outs, we ought also to probe further in getting to the bottom of such a phenomenon. In this way, Martha Marcy May Marlene not only relies on its audience's understanding of genre to create for itself some artistic freedom; in finally indulging in the ambiguities arising from such freedom, without constructing a fuller and more nuanced drama, its director inevitably finds himself dependent on such genre traits, returning to them for suggestive and implied shocks that only dull the film's lasting significance.