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…….

Leave a comment


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


    Hah! Now we’ve all got to go see the movie to find out how it ends….toad 🙂

    I’m particularly interested in this subject. I simply cannot understand how such cults survive and thrive in modern America after 60 odd years of campaigning feminism.

    It is extremely hard for people ensnared to escape from them, scads of help is required post cult. The victims are extremely fouled-up and need a lot of help.

    If this film got through to you, I’m happy for that. I hope lots of people see it.


  2. Jill Goldberg

     /  February 29, 2012

    This movie hasn’t made it across the ocean to this part of the world yet. Will be keeping my eye out, though.

    • I hope it does come your way. Let me know what you think if you do get to see it!

      • Jill Goldberg

         /  March 1, 2012

        I don’t understand why some films still take a while to be screened here, sometimes weeks after the rest of the world. It’s not like they have to parcel up the reels and send them over in the hold of a steam ship…

      • brendan stallard

         /  March 1, 2012


        It’s a matter of distribution. Just because a film has been made, there is no guarantee that it will ever see the inside of a movie house. That’s one of the reasons, specifically here in the USA that films are so desperate to avoid an R rating.

        Films without distributors go to the various film festivals in order to try and get picked up and distributed, but it’s no easy matter at times, especially if the material, (like this one) will be controversial or perhaps not happy-huggy ending.

        One might think that in the days of digital, it would all be so much easier. Just lace it up to my web service provider and on payment of fee, off we go.

        Nope, huge sets of lawyers, and middle MEN to get paid and have their copyrights asserted, written in stone and digital locks applied to the movie.


      • It’s as Brendan says, the mysteries of distribution contracts…. It’s always puzzled me that US films are often released in France before the UK, and for France they’ve either had to be dubbed or subtitled, which you’d tink might slow the process rather than accelerate it.

  3. klondike

     /  March 21, 2012

    My co-worker at DISH told me the ending sucked! I haven’t seen this movie but after she told me pretty much everything I still wanted to see it. I ordered it using Blockbuster @Home so I received it in the mail yesterday. I plan on watching it this weekend, I love a good thriller. I didn’t even know Elizabeth Olsen could act but I heard she did very well in this movie.

    • I hope you enjoy the film. I did (although the ending was frustrating). Elizabeth Olsen was indeed very good – so much of the movie depends on her tremendous mixture of strength and vulnerability.


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