I had heard much talk about this decidedly independent film in 2011, but for a multitude of reason it went unwatched well after its initial release and farther into 2013, until I stumbled upon a copy at a local vinyl record store, making me realize that it was both a sign of it needing to be viewed, as well as a perfect addition to this month of women in film. Initially I was uncertain about my feelings for this movie, I will admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it, but was cautious to give it praise for what may well have been nothing more than showy cinematography and layered metaphors, but this is not the case. Between the absolutely phenomenal performances put on by the various members of the cast, as well as a non-linear yet forward moving plot, it is enough to make even the most inexperienced of cinephiles take note at its commitment to style and story. It is a rare thing for a movie of this degree to be so realized, without sacrificing some degree of narrative quality in the process. Director Sean Durkin used this film to come into the world of film in a big way, clearly taking no chances on the assumption that he would get follow up films, while certainly not as huge of a filmic statement as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Martha Marcy May Marlene, undoubtedly, offers viewers with something fresh and intense, without ever offering any sort of out or answer to its narrative twists and complexities. It is challenging filmmaking at its finest, both easy to watch with its visual symmetry and sound styling, as well as equally challenging with its philosophical gravitas and societal condemnation. Many speak of the best films allow viewers to enter a world of voluntary escapism in which they can ignore their problems, with a film like Martha Marcy May Marlene, the films images serve as a sort of counter-escapisim suggesting that much of what we do unconsciously avoids challenging our issues and misgivings. This film asks those who engage with it to consider one woman's break from reality and reflect on what series of seemingly unrelated events could lead another person to doing the exact same thing.
Martha Marcy May Marlene while possessive of multiple title character names, focuses specifically on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) a girl who has recently run away from some bizarre cult to seek a safe haven with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her slightly conservative husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). While there it is clear that she is far detached from societal norms, in her desire to sludge around doing nothing all day or going skinny dipping in the broad daylight while children swim only yards away. It is quite obvious, however, that Martha's disconnect is very psychological as well, as the narrative often jumps, without warning, to her experiences while at the commune, which is headed by Patrick (John Hawkes) who manages to simultaneously be disgusting and charismatic. While Patrick is decidedly the patriarchal figurehead of the entire commune, Martha finds herself becoming close with Katie (Maria Dizzia) one of the other women in the group who seems to have completely committed to the seemingly utopian world created by Patrick, who ends up renaming Martha to the oddly alliterative Marcy May and eventually drugging her as part of a cleansing ritual, which leads to him having sex with her while she is unconscious. This already problematic event is followed by Martha being involved in an unusual case of breaking and entering where a man is killed in front of her own eyes, despite her clear condemnation for its occurrence. This series of intense and unexplained events lead to Martha being in a state of absolute disarray, helping to explain her initial fleeing from the commune, yet even leaving proves of little benefit and when she breaks down during a party thrown by Lucy and Ted they decide to admit her to a mental ward. On the last day of staying with her sister, Martha sees a man across the river, who looks eerily similar to Patrick. Saying nothing about it the film then cuts to a shot of Martha in the back seat of Ted's car, where she witnesses the couple almost run over a man, who then walks buy the car, again his identity is uncertain and they may well be the person she saw on the riverbank, who may well have been Patrick. The final shot of the film is Martha looking back slightly paranoid, as though to assure her safety a thing that is never verified.
There is a lot going on within Martha Marcy May Marlene, some focusing on social commentaries on indoctrination and escaping depression through conspicuous consumption, yet the major commentaries, and pertinent to this month of blogging, are those concerning gender politics, in direct opposition to unquestioned patriarchal rule. Little is explained about Patrick as a cult leader, yet his reign and importance are unquestioned, much like patriarchy in its most institutionalized situations. This sort of backwards looking traditionalism which one often associates with the patriarchy is reiterated with the communes seeming desire to return to the past in a sort of totalitarian one for all way of living. I say totalitarian and not socialist, because one cannot read a layer of equality into the world Patrick has created, aside from his assurance that everyone will receive food and a place to stay, it is clear that males possess superiority within their society, and even this is subjected to a higher degree of respectability for Patrick who apparently gets first choice on the new women in the commune. Martha is clearly distraught from this experience and has trouble possessing a sexual identity afterwards, one that seems stuck in a sort of childlike state of exposure and social misdirection, she even wets herself at one point in the movie and instead of cleaning up the mess and telling her sister, she simply hides the stained dress under the bed, her shame is clearly a result of her negative sexual experiences, but her ability to deal with them is reflective of a person not mentally mature enough to understand her own issues. It would be one thing if the commune were vilified and her safe place with her sister were idealized, however, both seem intent on pushing Martha towards normalcy, in which she accepts her own dependence on male figures. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about oppression from many directions and a woman drowning whilst trying to navigate the tumultuous waters.
Key Scene: The party scene is teaming with intensity and only one moment of many in which I became completely captivated by the monotonous, yet purposeful, pacing of the film.
I am quite fond of this movie, but realize that it may not be for everyone. I would suggest renting the bluray specifically though because it is a beautifully shot film.