Identity Crisis: Martha Marcy May Marlene Reviewed

Sean Durkin's multilayered debut uses the story of a girl who escapes from a cult to explore notions of victimhood and family. Yasmeen Khan is enthralled by this genre-transcending psychological thriller

What does it mean to be a victim?  Is victimhood always imposed by others, or is it something we can choose to accept or reject? How do victims become victimisers? Can families create victims? What do we even mean by ‘family’? Martha Marcy May Marlene, the outstanding debut feature from US director Sean Durkin, uses the framework of a complex psychological thriller to examine these questions and, in doing so, transcends the restrictions of the genre. What sets it apart from other thrillers – and standard indie fare in general – is the control Durkin maintains throughout. Nuances of tone, atmosphere and genre are carefully yet seemingly effortlessly modulated to produce something that feels unique: a genuinely scary, genuinely thoughtful, genuinely beautiful film with serious inquiry at its heart.

The title character, Martha (a wonderful Elizabeth Olsen), is a young woman in search of a family and, by extension, a place in the world. She left her natural family to join an artificial one, a reclusive cult; later, she rejects the latter and tries to return to the former. The film’s about the process of these transitions and the psychological effects they have on her. Neither family is healthy; Martha takes the role of both victim and victimiser in each.

The movie opens on a girl called Marcy escaping from a house. It’s an odd abode, full of people. A man gives chase for a while, professing to care for her, but eventually these people let her go. She flees to her natural family, now reduced to just a sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and Ted (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), and goes to ground in their idyllic lakeside holiday home. They call her Martha. Gradually, we learn about the nature of the place she’s lived in for two years. Patrick (John Hawkes) a charismatic man with wild hair and a lovely singing voice, leads a group that’s establishing a farm in the isolation of the Catskill Mountains. They’re a ‘family’ in the same sense as the Manson Family was. There’s no real exploration of their beliefs, other than the requirement for the young women to have sex with the leader: establishing a pseudo-romantic relationship with each is how he maintains control. But nothing overtly religious is ever said. The cult’s creed is based on benign-sounding principles. Everyone has to contribute, but how is left up to them. They live precariously, but the rituals and oddities in the rhythms of their life suggest permanence as well as transience.

It’s easy to see how this family acquires members – and victims. It seduces lonely people with the promise of normality and love; with the sense of belonging and being valued for their contributions. Textbook stuff. The cult victimises its own, but also outsiders. Martha accepts and participates in the former, but can’t countenance the latter. This is at the core of her character and the heart of the film. Is preying on your own family different from preying on strangers? Does the family unit’s duty of almost infinite forgiveness lead us to do worse things to our own than we do to outsiders? Patrick’s cult randomly selects victims just as the killers in Funny Games (1997) or The Strangers (2008) do, but Martha… asks how this unfair and arbitrary victimisation compares to the systematic abuse of family members.

Durkin explores these issues through examining the roles Martha plays in her two families. Structurally, he does this by layering and interweaving the various narratives of her life into a seamless whole, enabling the viewer to see points of transition and also to understand that in Martha’s mind, past and present are confused. Flashback is a common storytelling device, of course, but Martha… doesn’t so much flash back as glide gently between times, marking the shifts from past to present with little more than a moving shadow or change of shirt.

Martha’s mental confusion means her identity is fluid, always tied up in her relationships. Patrick has a habit of renaming the women who join his household, hence she’s Marcy May there. She’s told she can be anything she wants – the cult’s message is that everyone will find their own role. Martha’s told she’s ‘a teacher and a leader’. Later, Lucy is incredulous when Martha claims to be these things. It’s a natural dislocation – the contrast between how we appear to family as opposed to how we edit and reinvent ourselves for those who don’t know us so well – but Martha’s case is extreme. It’s no wonder Lucy thinks she’s deluded, disconnected from reality.

The identity question emphasises how slippery the transitions are. Martha can be Patrick’s victim at the same time as victimising her sister. The women in the cult can manipulate her concurrently with her manipulation of newer recruits. The chains of fault and blame are tangled: where does responsibility stop and involuntary, traumatised behaviour take over? Martha’s past history with her sister, also evidently traumatic, is treated very differently. They allude to events without ever revealing exactly what happened. This is in sharp contrast to the flashback structure describing her time with Patrick.

The film creates an atmosphere that feels entirely its own: spooky, hyperreal, dreamlike. The entwined narratives occupy carefully constructed spaces, indoor and outside. Patrick’s house reflects the ramshackle, accreted nature of his family, with its dark stairways and collections of shabby, communal clothes; the scribbles on the wall instructing residents how to answer the phone; the clutter of books and guitars and the dim, crowded bedrooms. Its garden is for growing food. By contrast, Lucy and Ted’s holiday home is huge, clean, uncluttered, bright. Its garden is for flowers, the lake for swimming and boating. Importantly, Martha marks the contrasts. Her indoctrination by Patrick’s family leads her to question Lucy and Ted’s desire for room they don’t actually ‘need’. Part of her victimhood is literally a difficulty in occupying space. So she escapes into the natural world. The woods around Patrick’s house, the lake outside Lucy’s. These unbounded areas represent fear as well as freedom, though – they become a canvas of Martha’s terrified imagination, which peoples them with watchers. So where is Martha supposed to go?

This tension, this consequence of victimhood, is further expressed in her attitude to personal space. Patrick’s family stripped Martha of personal boundaries. Her relationship with her sister has been totally rewritten by her adopted family. Like Sissy (Carey Mulligan) and Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Steve McQueen’s current hit Shame, their sibling relationship is unbalanced, leading to it being both inappropriately close and unbearably fragile.

The beauty of this picture is that it takes Martha’s possibly disturbed psychology and just describes it, often simply visually. Nothing’s forced or spelled out and no conclusions are drawn, but the careful structure and attention to detail allow the viewer to make connections and decide how much weight, if any, to give to evidence. Is Martha imagining things? Is she deranged or just traumatised? These aren’t questions for the film to answer – it just presents them. In this respect it feels more like some modern ghost stories (for example The Others and The Awakening, from 2001 and 2011 respectively) and less like the many psychological thrillers about possibly disturbed women it otherwise resembles (1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) that plump for one explanation or another at the end. It’s reminiscent of the Brendan Fraser-Ashley Judd-Viggo Mortensen vehicle The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995), in atmosphere as well as subject matter, but crucially lacks the descent into true horror that this and so many other films take.

Like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret last year, Martha Marcy May Marlene demonstrates that the American ‘indie’ sector can still deliver surprises. Both films were released by Fox Searchlight. Both are exquisite and unusual, rewarding and fascinating, and, crucially, notable for the strength of their writing. Martha Marcy May Marlene is that rare thing: a rich and gripping psychological thriller that delivers both the psychology and the thrills.

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