Summary: Martha May Marcy Marlene Creates the Right Atmosphere but Falls Short of Developing the Story Keeping That Very Atmosphere
In a crucial scene from the film, Martha practices shooting along with her female friend in the woods, the two being instructed by a male companion. Martha does not hit the target in her first two or three attempts but when the father of her child and the cult leader Patrick enters the scene and guides her in accurately aiming the target (three beer bottles) by directing her energy and tension and using breath control for the perfect aim, she shoots the bottle in the center. Patrick then demands that she shoot a wild cat, adding that the animal is sick and would prefer quick death than prolonged suffering. Martha is very hesitant and refuses at first, so Patrick then gives her an alternate option – to shoot their male companion. Martha then nervously aims for the cat but takes too long to pull the trigger, and her female friend pulls the gun from Martha’s shaking hands and shoots but misses hitting the cat. Finally, the male companion is the one who ends the cat’s life while Martha is visibly shaken and upset.
After Martha escapes the cult, she strangely seems to behave like a cat, curling like one whenever she sleeps and always assuming a defensive, vigilant demeanor whenever awake. When someone addresses her, she sticks her neck out and gazes awkwardly or evasively enough to make the other person uncomfortable. No more is she a ‘teacher and a leader’ as she was in the cult; the life after is one fraught with high difficulties in adapting to fundamental aspects of the real world. This is basically what the tongue-twister-titled movie is about: the ‘stab in the nape’ once a person associated with any cult decides to quit it and re-enter the real world.
Martha May Marcy Marlene follows Martha’s existence after she escapes from the cult and begins living with her elder sister and brother-in- law. The young lady not only finds it tough adjusting to her sister’s affluent lifestyle but also finds her past memories haunting her in the form of hallucinations, threatening to invade her present. We soon realize that the flashbacks we see become her internal state of mind that intermingle with her present and drive her to the brink of insanity.
My access to indie films is quite limited but the common element I find in many films is their fascination with dark elements (not witchcraft though). The sets use low lighting, have a prominent color scheme, include some choicy music genres uncommon in mainstream cinemas and take some bold cinematographic decisions; more importantly, indie films seem to do away with Hollywood-ish stylized treatment and tackle grim subject matters in a highly grim manner (many flesh out an entire movie tackling only a single or few themes such as grief/redemption/uncertainty/rage etc). Some achieve brilliant results (Boys Don‘t Cry/Blair Witch Project), some fail badly (absolutely miserable Indian movie ‘Bengaloored’) while a majority succeed in terms of treatment but leave more to be desired (Tyrannosaur). Martha May Marcy Marlene falls in the third category, but it remains less effective than the other movie I have placed in the category, Tyrannosaur. I had mentioned in my review for Tyrannosaur that I felt the movie could have cut deeper, and the same goes for Martha May Marcy Marlene. The movie does plenty in creating an unsettling atmosphere but stays pretty thin in terms of story; so you spend double the time you would watching a similar mainstream movie on each of the scene with the camera leisurely tilting or tracking on the characters, bringing the runtime to a hundred minutes which a mainstream movie would’ve covered in thirty minutes (the rest progressing the story).
Like in Tyrannosaur, MMMM gets its level of success majorly due to the performances from its main actors. Elizabeth Olsen, who is very very beautiful, convincingly makes Martha a character whom anyone in their right mind would find uncomfortable. Even when she is naked, you would not really want to sit next to her Martha (that is, the Martha who has left the cult) unless you are her sibling. And Sarah Paulson as the elder sibling Lucy has to understand her younger sister’s psyche, which itself is a big task because of the emotional distance between the two and Martha’s strong defenses. Paulson’s dialog delivery is perfect for the role she has been given (a sister who is not very adept at handling such situations). Olsen’s performance also helps to drive Hugh Dancy‘s performance as Lucy’s husband Ted, with a great moment coming when the two (Martha and Ted) have a confrontation at the dinner table. John Hawkes creates the perfect atmosphere through his character Patrick, a deranged mind who has convinced himself and can successfully convince many others that his disturbing philosophy is the perfect way of existence.