Title: Martha, Marcy May, Marlene
Dir: Sean Durkin
Released: 3rd of February 2012
In a year of ridiculously long movie titles - We Need to Talk About Kevin, Rise of the Planet of The Apes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes Martha, Marcy May, Marlene, a psychological drama from Sean Durkin.
His first feature-length film as writer/director sees Elizabeth Olsen in the titular role as a troubled young woman (Martha) who struggles with paranoia to find her sense of identity after the traumatic experience of living in a cult. Elizabeth is younger sister of the once cute but now clearly untalented Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. The film opens with Martha fleeing from the cult and returning to stay with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Ted is a very successful architect and the three of them stay in a massive holiday home next to a picturesque lake in Upstate New York.
Durkin begins the narrative with an air of ambiguity. The film’s success rests on Olsen’s shoulders and she plays her part to a tee as Lucy struggles to understand her sister’s strange behaviour. Durkin begins to slowly unravel Martha’s past by intersecting sequences of Martha in the company of Lucy and Ted, who enjoy their lavish bourgeoisie lifestyle with sequences of ‘Marcy May’, the name bestowed upon her by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes).
The cult in the film is not-so-loosely based on the Manson Family cult, perhaps the most famous cult in American history. Patrick manipulates damaged young men and women into joining.. As the film progresses the more sinister aspects of the cult are slowly revealed. Patrick uses brain-washing methods to get the lost and susceptible to follow and worship him unconditionally. Martha is the perfect candidate for such seduction. Martha neither fits in at the cult or at home with her sister and brother-in-law. The fact that these two settings are polar-opposites aside, it still makes for an intense psychological drama.
Martha’s search for identity is futile in this bleak narrative. Her fear for the future and paranoia about her past is portrayed wonderfully by Olsen and is truly unsettling. As the narrative progresses her paranoia intensifies to the point where it is not clear whether the films unreliable protagonist is delusional or not, which leads the film to an open ending which is sure to divide audiences.
Open-endings leave some cinema-goers thrilled and others disappointed, confused, or even angry. However, they always spark debate. Personally, I love open-endings because it causes you to think more about what you have just seen, and it can often make you want to watch the film all over again. Such endings tend to stick in your mind long after you have left the cinema. They are both a stimulating and frustrating artistic method. For me, there are two reasons for their use in cinema.
The first being to purely spark controversy or debate, like in the case of Christopher Nolan’s spinning totem in Inception (2010). This is to keep audiences thinking and talking about the film, and to give them the desire to see it again to find the elusive answer. Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005), which is in some ways like Inception, is another example of this approach.
I believe Martha, Marcy May, Marlene falls into a second category. It is a search for true realism in cinema. Martha doesn’t have an ending because we are only witnessing a snippet of this characters life, albeit a significant one. The powerful realism in the film is that it ends abruptly, but the cameras could just as easily have kept rolling. The film has not-so-much an open-ending but more of a non-ending. It is hard to explain without given too much away, so the best way to do it is to give you an example.
Below is the final scene from HBO series The Sopranos (1999-2007), which even half a decade later continues to be speculated upon. Cinematically it is comparable to the ending of Half Nelson (2006).
Overall, Martha, Marcy May, Marlene is an intense and thought-provoking psychological drama. It is a very impressive debut. The film also boasts terrific performances from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy. John Hawkes is chilling as the persuasive cult leader. Elizabeth Olsen shines in this film and is clearly a budding young star bursting with potential, making a difficult role look easy.