Martha Marcy May Marlene

Perhaps my audible shout of frustration at the abrupt ending to this movie is a testament to how effectively it had ratcheted up my feelings of tension and anxiety and the keen expectation that something nasty was just about to happen.

The story is of a young woman, Martha to her family, Marcy May as she was renamed by the commune leader, Marlene, as she must identify herself on the commune’s telephone, trying to escape both a sinister paternalistic cult and her memories of it.

The movie starts with Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, sneaking out of a shared house at dawn and running away through the woods.  Pursued by one of the men from the cult as far as the nearby town by, where she makes a faltering call to her estranged sister, she is haunted by the memories of what has happened to her during her time with the group, and her fears that they are still chasing her.

Told in two intertwining tales, flashing backwards and forwards between scenes in the commune and a present in a vast lakeside house rented by her sister and husband, the narrative glides seamlessly between the two.  Watching, you begin to wonder what is real and what Martha is conjuring from her own disturbed imagination and increasing paranoia.

I got a feeling of a character completely isolated, out of place both in the closed in crowded community of the cult, and in the spacious clinical house of her sister.  Martha is both disturbed and awkwardly out of step with her conventional sister and she finds that she can fit into neither environment.  Her sister doesn’t want her skinny dipping in the lake, nor sitting on the kitchen counter; while in the cult her misdemeanours had been eating before the men had finished, and not ‘sharing herself freely’ enough.

Eating was a recurrent metaphor.  Hungry in the cult from only one rushed meal a day, after the men, when Martha runs away, her first stop is a diner where she eats a sandwich both furtively and desperately, but can’t finish when the boy chasing her catches up.  At her sister’s house she nibbles at her food, pushing it around her plate with a fork, while her brother in law ( a rather stiff and possibly miscast Hugh Dancy) berates her for her lack of respect for his home and hospitality.

For such an effective psychological thriller there is barely any violence, the threat is created and built solely from the idea of its potential.  Elizabeth Olsen gives a great performance as a person haunted by her experiences but not prepared to give anything away.

My only gripe with the film remains that of the ending…….

%d bloggers like this: