Martha Marcy Marlene is a thought-provoking and deeply unsettling film that explores the psychological aftermath of a young woman’s experience in a cult. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, the film stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a troubled young woman who seeks refuge with her estranged sister (portrayed by Sarah Paulson) after fleeing from a cult in the Catskill Mountains. As Martha and her traumas move in with her sister, her brother-in-law Ted (portrayed by Hugh Dancy) and her sister are facing conflicts within their marriage. The title of the film depicts the various perceptions of Martha by people she encounters throughout her life; “Martha” is her birth name, “Marcy May” is the name given to her by her former cult leader, and “Marlene” is a name used by her sister.
The film opens with Martha running through the woods in a state of panic, pursued by the members of the cult who aim to bring her back. At last, she finds her way to a payphone and calls her sister Lucy for help. Lucy then takes Martha to her lake house though Martha struggles to adjust to “normal” life. She is haunted by the memories of her time with the cult and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable.
One of the most outstanding elements that adds a sense of uneasiness to the film is its non-linear structure. The film switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the cult and her present-day struggles with assimilating to life outside of it. Because of this disorienting structure, we are never quite sure what is real and what is a memory or hallucination.
Durkin makes use of long takes and static shots to create a sense of stuckness and tension. The lake house is both relaxing and constricting, the cinematography captures both aspects of the setting masterfully.
Olsen portrays the character with a sense of vulnerability and desperation that is both disturbing and disheartening. We can see how the cult has damaged Martha’s psyche and how she struggles to find her place in the outside world.
The film also touches on the concept of memory. It shows how our memories can shape our perceptions of reality through Martha’s experience: how adopted harmful patterns and traumas ingrained into memory change one's perception of the world and how someone who has not experienced all this trauma can do no good despite their desire to help. The permanence of memory damage and the difference it creates between people are also referred.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not an easy film to watch — it is slow-paced and at times feels like it is going nowhere. It's a film that demands patience and attention from the audience. Elizabeth Olsen’s mesmerizing performance and the film’s haunting yet powerful narration make it a must-see for fans of psychological thrillers.