If there is one truth about paranoia it is that it transcends time, space, and especially reason. The fears conjured by paranoia are often brought on by familiarity; a feeling that one has experienced this situation before to fearful results. This link between memories and fears is what could allow paranoia and hysteria to overtake the mind of an individual. It is with this understanding that Martha Marcy May Marlene is able to plunge its audience into an unshakable state of pure paranoia.
The film starts off innocently enough; depicting a small farm in upstate New York where a small group of young adults chop firewood, gather crops, and wash clothing. The farm seems idyllic in its simplicity, almost as if the film was set in another time.
It is here that we meet the titular Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, as she slyly creeps out of the sleeping quarters one night. It is the first hint that maybe not everything about this group is as it appears. The moment she manages to get under the cover of the dense forest surrounding the farm, dozens of people fan out into the woods to conduct a frenzied search for her.
Martha manages to escape and place a frantic call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Both are wealthy Manhattanites, Ted being an architect, sharing a vacation in their summer home, a sizeable mansion, in Connecticut. Lucy invites Martha to stay with them, having not seen her for over two years, in hopes of rekindling a lost relationship with her sister.
Martha won’t talk about what happened during her time with the commune, passing it off as time spent with a boyfriend, but it becomes quickly apparent that she has been deeply affected by her time there. Martha is quiet but prone to outbursts, almost savage at times, and it is clear that she has long since divorced herself from conventional societal norms.
These behaviors stand in stark contrast to the materialistic life of her sister and husband as well as the imposing size of her new housing. However, the real conflict is in whether or not Martha can escape from the commune both physically and mentally.
Writer/director Sean Durkin fully understands the notion of paranoia and how living in a brainwashing commune might affect someone’s perception of time and space. For Martha, every moment is spent dealing with the changes in her present alongside the fears of her past.
Durkin allows this to be visualized by a series of flashbacks that depict Martha’s time with the commune from beginning to end. However, it would be unfair to call these scenes merely flashbacks, as they act as moments that are fully integrated into Martha’s present state. Each transition is seamless and oftentimes unexpected. It works as an excellent way to plunge the audience into the fearful mindset of Martha, while creating the idea that Martha might not be the trustworthiest of narrators.
Scenes at the commune grow in their intensity, starting with unsettling beginnings and culminating in moments of true horror. Martha is quickly renamed Marcy May and indoctrinated into the commune’s society. What makes the commune, run by a Charles Manson-like figure named Patrick (John Hawkes), so frightening is that it doesn’t seem to have any religious affiliation. The power that Patrick wields is that of coercion and charm, opening up his character to be a universally frightening figure. Eventually seeing Martha, as Marcy May, indoctrinate a new young female into the commune in the same horrific way that she was indoctrinated proves to be one of the most haunting scenes in the film.
Martha is a young woman caught between two worlds. There is the modern materialistic world that she went to the commune to escape and the horrific world of the commune, whose non-materialistic worldview is more in-line with her own. However, as more is revealed about Patrick’s cult it becomes evident that Martha has a lot more to worry about than just dealing with her memories of her past, a past which might be literally catching up to her.
Elizabeth Olsen’s, the younger sister to the infamous Olsen twins, performance as Martha is a tour de force, without ever drawing attention to itself. Olsen manages to be completely timid and somehow sexy all at the same time, her character’s tormented innocence taking the forefront. Olsen’s transformation from before she entered the commune to her time after it can be seen completely on her face. Every moment of pure horror and pain has been secretly hidden behind Olsen’s eyes. This is truly the performance of the year and seeing it from an actress just beginning her career is incredibly exciting.
Writer/director Sean Durkin sensibly starts the film off at a distance from Martha, never really allowing the audience to know exactly what is happening in her head. Then, in an expertly crafted party sequence, Durkin plunges the audiences directly into the viewpoint of Martha and it is at this point her paranoia becomes the viewer’s as well.
It is at this moment that the strength of Martha Marcy May Marlene becomes fully apparent. With the incredible performance of Elizabeth Olsen and the precise direction of Sean Durkin, the film hypnotizes its audience and injects them with a dosage of pure paranoia. This isn’t the kind of paranoia born out of a fleeting fear, but one based on the successful integration of memory and present action. In its final moments, Martha Marcy May Marlene puts that paranoia to the test, with one of the most controversial endings of the year that has to be seen to be believed.
|3.5 / 4 Reels|