Clever Manipulation: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

[28 March 2012]

By Dan Heaton

Depicting a believable cult in a 100-minute feature is no easy proposition. The simplest approach would involve focusing on the more sensationalistic aspects of this group. That style would avoid the more frightening aspects of this situation, however. The methods used by the leaders to dominate the group are deliberate and take advantage of a specific personality type.

While many of us might think we’d never fall for this manipulation, we all have weaknesses that the right person could exploit. The subtle ways leaders transform the participants is the focus of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s intriguing 2011 film. It’s a difficult experience and takes a few missteps, but that tone matches the mental conflict of the lead character.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) returns to the world beyond the cult as a broken person who’s lost her ability to function properly. Her behavior seems completely normal at times, but her mind is a fragile instrument that’s a few steps away from falling apart. Although she escaped physically, Martha remains trapped by her past experiences and can’t sever the connection.

Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) have the best intentions, but there’s only so much turmoil they can handle. Moments in her present-day life send Martha’s brain back to her times in the cult, and part of her longs to return to the simplicity of that experience. Her past also brings serious danger to the family, who understand that she’s troubled but don’t realize the depths of her situation.

The most effective moments involve the indoctrination by the entire cult, including friendly women who contribute to the problems. Their leader is the magnetic Patrick (John Hawkes), an understated guy who knows exactly what he’s doing. When he meets Martha, he disarms her with kindness while gaining control by changing her name. Patrick writes a beautiful song for her and makes her comfortable, and then the next phase of the transformation begins.

It’s more than just sexual dominance and takes over every aspect of Martha’s personality. She quotes his lines exactly to her sister and doesn’t even realize she’s speaking his thoughts. Patrick is frightening because he doesn’t raise his voice and controls with clever manipulation. If he tried a more direct approach, it wouldn’t have the same effect because the new recruits would see through the ploy. Instead, they focus on the positive aspects of the group, and their minds ignore the mysterious and unsavory elements.

Hawkes is masterful in this role and is the perfect choice for the part. Patrick might not seem physically imposing, but he’s more frightening than a man twice his size.

There are a few issues that keep Martha Marcy May Marlene from being even more effective. Durkin takes the obvious approach to cut between the present and the past, and the device becomes tired by the story’s end. He also focuses so much on Elizabeth Olsen’s face that it becomes a claustrophobic experience. That effect is by design, but it seems overplayed and heavy handed during the emotional moments.

That said, the film is very good and includes two of the best performances from the past year. Elizabeth Olsen received tremendous acclaim for the breakout role and deserves every bit of it. It’s unclear if she’ll end up having a superb career, but the prospects seem likely after this performance. If we don’t feel for Martha, the story doesn’t work and would become grating very quickly. Olsen doesn’t make her a likable character, but we understand why she’s acting so difficult. The cult has accomplished a lot more than messing her up physically; it’s destroyed her personality and replaced it with a broken individual.

This Blu-ray release includes a large amount of extras, but most of them are shorter than five minutes. The one exception and best inclusion is Mary Last Seen, a 13-minute short film from Durkin that covers similar material. It clearly shows the way that a young guy pushes an unwitting girl into a cult. Shot with a similar style to this film, it’s equally chilling and definitely worth seeing.

The remaining extras mostly involve brief interviews with the cast and crew about the expected topics. “The Psyche of a Cult” brings in an expert to discuss how a cult typically functions. It’s a compelling subject but only gives a short overview during its five-minute running time. Another enjoyable feature is the music video for “Marcy’s Song”, the pivotal song from John Hawkes. This is the type of song that should be nominated for an Oscar. The video mostly shows Hawkes sitting in a chair and singing, but it’s great to have the entire song provided on the disc.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/156354-martha-marcy-may-marlene/