Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
The environment of a cult is a hot topic in film today; actually cults have been a fascinating segment of film throughout the years, especially in the glare of Charles Manson and Waco. Movie dealing with cults today though look at them as surrogate families, one that espouse peace and love and giving up materials in the glare of Occupy Wall Street. The newest and most buzzed about film, dealing with cults is Martha Marcy May Marlene. With a break-out star in Elizabeth Olsen and a creepy premise, the movie is no doubt fascinating despite being a tad overblown.
Martha (Olsen) has escaped from the clutches of an overzealous cult led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). Martha finds comfort in the affluent world of her estranged sister Lucy and her husband (Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy). Things start to go askew when Martha starts to flashback on her life in the cult which causes her to push away from her family, and the world of reality.
Director Sean Durkin’s movie is a tough film to describe as so much of the film is reliant on the visuals. Much of the movie happens in complete silence as characters look at something off-camera, or the camera focuses on one character while another does something in the background. This is also seen in the movie’s pacing, as long takes are stretched to infinity, and the movie has a lackadaisical feel of watching events happen before moving onto something new. Those who cherish tight scenes and reasons for showing something will be scratching their eyes out watching this as the movie reveals in simply “existing” as Martha mentions. Every scene has a purpose, but it comes at the expense of a previous scene so nothing comes in order which makes the audience question the true sequence of events.
Durkin’s screenplay is where the movie gains its strength, making the audience question what is the true way to live. The world of the cult and the world of suburbia both have their flaws as the film goes along, so at times you start to say “maybe Martha should go back to Patrick.” Sure her life there isn’t great, you watch young girls get initiated into the group via drugged sodomy, but there is a sense of community and not giving up on anyone despite what they do to you. Martha’s sister Lucy is obsessed with the façade of perfection, having the perfect house and family, that Martha is a blemish on that. Coming from someone who has lived in the suburbs shown in the film, I felt for Martha’s confusion at not doing what is “normal.”
The scenes of Patrick and the cult are the best, due to Olsen and Hakwes’ relationship. Hawkes is phenomenal here, going off of a string of other great performances. His role is similar to his turn as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, but here he’s far more menacing and manipulative. Patrick makes Martha feel like she’s the only woman in the room as he sings a song he names after her. Yet at the same time he can rape her while everyone tells her its okay. When the film takes a drastic turn into murder, you feel along with Martha that Patrick is far more than just a charismatic cult leader…killer isn’t too far behind.
Olsen herself is the true revelation of this movie. She boasts a frightening resemblance to her famous sisters (maybe you’ve heard of Mary-Kate and Ashley), but she is stunning. The young actress conveys fear and confusion without being whiny or resorting to tears. Yet the moments where she is relaxed, whether with her sister or Patrick, there’s a light and a freshness that draws you to her. This young lady could have an incredibly successful career as a serious actress if she keeps doing roles that challenge like this.
Clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, the problems start to involve the film’s pacing towards the end. The flashbacks/forwards start to move too quickly that you’re instantly confused about where you are. This is meant to mirror Martha’s growing confusion with past and present, but so much information is thrown out so quickly you feel that an hour has gone by when it’s only been a few minutes. Had Durkin allowed some of the takes to go on a bit longer, instead of front-loading them into the beginning, the film wouldn’t have felt as long.
It’s too early to say where Martha Marcy May Marlene falls in the year’s best, but I’d look for this to get some serious acting consideration come Oscar time for Hawkes and Olsen. The film is disorienting and frustrating at times, but if you sit back and “exist” with it, you’ll be surprised at how engaging it is.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.