There is something so sinister about the word “cult.”
The 2011 film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” is a psychological thriller that explores the effects of this lifestyle through the eyes of a young, lost woman. Though the film deals with a fascinating topic and contains a noteworthy lead performance, its predictable development and slow-moving style cost it any dramatic momentum.
The story follows Martha, a girl with an ambiguous past, who attempts to assimilate herself into her older sister’s life. At the start of the film, the audience is thrown into Martha’s isolated existence as she chaotically flees from a house into the forest.
Actress Elizabeth Olsen immediately sets up Martha as a stubbornly fragile person; in the first scene she hunches her shoulders as
her voice warbles with a fearful, brainwashed tone into a pay phone. It was unclear how the younger sister of the famous Olsen twins would fare in the independent film, but Olsen shows her chops as an actress in this scene, and her believable quality as a victim carries through the rest of the movie.
The audience gains hints of Martha’s past life in the form of flashbacks. First-time director Sean Durkin shows his stylistic ability through seamless cuts, such as a character walking into a dark hallway in the present, only to emerge somewhere in the past. This surreal style lulls the audience into Martha’s mind and draws hazy lines between memory, reality and paranoia.
A notable aspect of the cult was John Hawkes’ performance as the patriarch, Patrick. In his own creepy way, Hawkes manages to subtly switch between playing the comforting father figure and a threatening predator, often in the course of one sentence. In an especially memorable scene, Hawkes sings a haunting song about Martha. It sets up the inclusive draw of a cult, yet leaves the audience feeling wary.
Unfortunately, the cult’s portrayal often becomes stereotypical. Seeing a movie like this, it’s easy to expect heavy sexual overtones, and the movie fulfilled these expectations with both rape and orgy scenes. That, however, wasn’t the most annoying part of the cult’s development—the film’s random ploys to be shocking came off as both obvious and cheesy.
For example, Martha is asked to kill a cat for no apparent reason. It was as if this scene was thrown in to check off a sign of emotional abuse from a list. It lacked motivation from previous actions of the cult and was a cheap way to disturb the audience.
This same failure in development crops up again with Martha’s relatives. A combination of weak acting performances and writing made Martha’s sister and brother-in-law difficult to relate to. They often scream “What’s wrong with you?” after she does harmless activities such as skinny-dipping. Their two-dimensional characterization made every moment of fear and concern seem hollow.
Despite occasional deviances, Martha seems to fit back into her sister’s socially acceptable lifestyle with no trouble. But don’t be fooled, Martha is randomly capable of sneaking onto the foot of her sister’s bed at the, well, most awkward moment possible. This scene especially came out of nowhere, and again, seemed to exist only to be shocking. If there had been more motivation leading up to this moment, this choice might not have felt so unrealistic.
The movie does contain a few genuinely jaw-dropping moments and eventually builds an anxious energy. But this only happens after the audience has been taken for granted. There’s only so many endless close-up shots and melancholy sequences that a person can take before losing interest.
In short, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a lacking version of a potentially powerful story. Thanks to Olsen’s delicate performance, however, many people will leave the theater half-liking the film, and half-confused.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Stephanie Riesco at Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.