Martha Marcy May Marlene

The many monikered heroine is a difficult person to like. Her actions childish will leave you dumbfounded. But, remarkably you want her to pull through because she belongs to a mysterious and wonderful story, told in tiny doses that leave you with an array of questions left unanswered.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a remarkable (that word again) film. A film that grows on you long before the credits roll. It leaves you confounded in its mystery and misery. It answers some of the questions, but not all of them, leaving a rather bitter (but good) taste in your mouth. This is one of those films that makes you feel satisfied when you’re walking out of the cinema, it makes you feel like you have been privy to a story that is rich with parables and with subtle characters. It leaves you wanting more, not for something better or more worthy, but something more that can only be found with internal reflection on your part. It makes you question your own decisions for the rest of the day. Or week.

The narrative oscillates between the past and present, each moving at a different pace. We cover a two-year period in the past, with a corresponding two-week period in the present. The film opens with Martha (a very good Elizabeth Olsen) running away from what looks like a commune, which later reveals itself as a socio-religious cult and a criminal organisation. We learn from her maternal and materialistic sister Lucy (a fantastic Sarah Paulson) that Martha has been missing for nearly two years. Lucy takes Martha to a lake house in Connecticut, unable to wrench any information about what happened to her sister. Martha, meanwhile, is aloof and dazed. She makes Lucy and her Brit architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) as uncomfortable and awkward as possible by swimming in her birthday suit or berating their wealth and lifestyle. Despite Lucy’s best efforts at making Martha open up, Ted soon loses patience with Martha’s procrastination and continuous bad temper.

So, what happened to Martha?

This is all revealed through extended flashbacks to her time with the commune / cult, run by a ‘father’, Patrick (John Hawkes, as brilliant as he’s always been). We find out early on that Martha and Lucy grew up without parents and Martha, in a desperate attempt at having an established family, joins the cult. Even though Martha’s new family seems to be functioning quite well, their dark side soon emerges. This is not what Martha had in mind. Although quite why it takes her 2 years to figure this out beggars question, but the reasons behind Martha’s present behaviour become somewhat apparent.

What the film succeeds in is not painting the picture of a girl who was abused and is now suffering the consequences, but in not revealing everything to us. Some of the relationships between the various members of the family are carefully left unexplained. Sean Durkin’s script ensures that the information is never forced upon the viewer, but rather shown in bits and pieces. Durkin shows in his feature directorial debut that he handles this balance very well on screen. He’s a talent to look out for.

A final nod to the wonderful music. There is a constant hum in the background - almost sci-fi like - with discordant celli. This subtly unsettling atmosphere is offset by two Jackson C. Frank covers, performed by John Hawkes himself: “Marcy’s Song” and “Marlene”. Frankly, the film benefits immensely from these two songs. They add to the melancholy and the uncertainty. You will be humming them for quite some time.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an incredibly good film. Difficult to watch (and maybe equally difficult to like for some), but it is simply unforgettable.