“Where you going?” Caught sneaking out of the upstate New York house where she’s been living for two years, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) turns back briefly. But she doesn’t stop. Instead, as the camera pulls back from her receding form, she scampers across a street into woods, rushing toward the early morning darkness.
As Martha Marcy May Marlene begins, Martha is escaping. She can’t be sure how far she’ll get, an emotional point made when she hunkers down in a diner, her hoodie sweatshirt providing scant cover as Max (Christopher Abbot) slides into the seat across from her. Seeing that she’s stopped eating, he takes her lunch. “You ready to go?” She shakes her head, her eyes lowered, and says, “Not right now.” Max stands and leans in to her, filling the frame and reproving her when she flinches. “Don’t do that,” he commands, as creepy a presence as he can be. Still, she refuses to leave, and when, in the next scene, Martha slouches at a sidewalk payphone, her chances of going anywhere seem slim.
She’s calling her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who insists on coming to pick her up even after Martha threatens to hang up: “I can’t stay here. I’m sorry I called.” She drives up from Connecticut, where she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) have a summer home on a lake (“How far are we?” Martha asks, and when Lucy asks from what, she answers, perfectly, “Yesterday”). Lucy doesn’t press Martha on where she’s been, and seeming to accept her explanation that she’s been living with a boyfriend and the romance went bad. What you come to learn, through unfolding flashbacks in Sean Durkin’s first feature, is that Martha’s been in a cult, a seeming escape from a difficult situation at home, following her mother’s death and infused with her sister’s judgment.
While you see Martha a lot — she’s in essentially every scene — her emotional structure remains elusive. If the flashbacks are her memories (as opposed or in addition to providing background for you), they’re remarkably pieced together, at once fractured and coherent, building to a set of devastating climaxes, in which all your worst imaginings about life in a cult are realized, including brainwashing and rape and violence. The first flashback is startling, as it reveals a remarkably younger Martha, her face upturned into the sun as she’s introduced to Patrick (John Hawkes), who immediately renames her “Marcy May.”
Martha’s been invited to this meeting by another girl, Zoe (Louisa Krause), perpetuating an unsurprising pattern, wherein the girls inside help the men — and in particular Patrick — to cultivate new members, young, unhappy teens who are duly indoctrinated. “We’ll find your role,” Zoe promises, “It takes people time to find their role in a new family” (a phrase Martha will come to repeat for the girl she’s assigned to train). “If you’re ever going to have a meaningful relationship in your life,” Patrick says, gently threatening, “You have to let us in.”
As the flashbacks reveal the multiple ways that Patrick gets in (increasingly distressing for you, as Martha’s face indicates her own lack of immersion), the present scenes reveal not only Martha’s dysfunction outside the cult, but also why she might have run from the non-cult world. Open and generous at one moment, tense and angry at another, Lucy pings between Ted’s demands for order and Martha’s inappropriate behaviors: she swims naked in the public lake, slips into their bedroom when they’re having sex, repeats Patrick’s manipulative assessment of her gifts: “I’m a teacher and a leader.” Worried about her sister’s emotional health and her husband’s exasperation, Lucy wonders, “What’s wrong with you?”, assuming, with most viewers, that the norm should be obvious and that the deviance marks it.
Martha insists on her self-sufficiency as a way out of talking with Lucy about obvious tensions. When Lucy frets about her own guilt (and so again shows how little she focuses on her sister), Martha looks away as she says, “You really don’t have to think about it. I knew what I was doing then and I still do.” The movie suggests that neither sister quite knows what she’s doing, but that doesn’t mean they’re blameless. If Patrick and Ted are both demanding and manipulative (however differently they’ve been socialized and however differently they use their positions of power), the women around them support their pathologies even if they mean to resist.
Ted’s vocal frustration and suggestion that Martha should start thinking “about a career” betray his willful blindness to the trauma she’s endured and has not yet sorted out. But what he sees as a “proper adult life” is precisely what Martha’s learned to reject, a life where “people just exist.” “It’s not your fault,” she instructs Ted, who sits across from her at the fine wood dinner table, his mouth dramatically agape. “You learned to measure success by money and possessions. It’s just not the right way to me.” Not unlike Patrick, though less subtly, Ted lays down rules: “You’re living under my roof, eating my food,” he threatens, essentially illustrating the problem Martha has just described. And so the camera cuts from Ted to Lucy looking down to Martha, now furious: “You don’t know anything about it.”
This seems a theme in Martha Marcy May Marlene. With one tight frame after another — faces close up and figures murky underwater, events viewed through windows and doorways — the movie conveys the limits of what you can understand. More about the sisters than its elusive titular focus, it shows them coming together and apart. Near film’s end, they stand at opposite ends of an atypical wide frame, distant while standing just feet apart on Lucy’s lawn, while you feel dread. As their separate dangers remain simultaneously imminent and out of frame, and also begin to converge, both Martha and Lucy struggle to compose themselves, to keep afloat.