Contributor; Chicago, Illinois

The word cult has fallen out of vogue these days which is probably all for the better. It got thrown around so liberally for so long that even the communal living group I've called home for 23 years has occasionally been accused of being a cult. Funny, I don't remember drinking any koolaid, ideological or otherwise. Instead it's been a delicate dance of relationships, balancing the needs of my soul for community and individuality. Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is about a young woman who finds herself in the midst of what would have been classically called a cult a few years ago is a good film with keen insight into the inner workings of truly controlling groups, and the decimation of individual identity that is symptomatic of the way they work. It is not however easy to watch. In between many compelling moments it runs slow to very slow. I'm not ready to credit first time director Sean Durkin with any sort of Tarkovskian fascination with the now,  Martha Marcy May Marlene isn't quite that sophisticated. But it does manage to be quietly dangerous, telling us a story in which souls are on the line. 

We meet Martha, the title character, as she is preparing to leave an as yet undefined sect she has become attached to. Clearly she is afraid but we haven't yet seen anything that would tell us why. Left to surmise the audience is likely to project all sorts of things onto the situation and director Sean Durkin counts on it, revealing necessary details sparingly. We are seduced along with this young lady, by a variety of things. The bucolic woodsy setting, the general friendliness of the people in the group and the simple lifestyle they embrace. By the time we realize why Martha is leaving the group it is to late to simply extricate ourselves emotionally . We feel entangled by the surprising complexity of everything around Martha, the ambiguous relationships, the economics, etc . Together they form a web that binds us up inside as much as out. 

As Martha reaches out to her actual family to aid her escape we are heartbroken to discover she can't find peace there either. The ties that bind are not necessarily the ties that nurture and Martha is instead left with the choice to conform to the suburban dream and be fed or continue on her way essentially alone following the inevitable rejection that ensues. 

Elizabeth Olsen is perfectly cast in the title role projecting a deep sense of woundedness, lostness and desire to please those around her. She's never cloying. Instead she provides a perfect backdrop for the series of devastating flashbacks that tell viewers how she came to be in her broken state. Her performance, the free flowing narrative offer up Martha as a sort of living understated thought piece that will be taxing for some. But it's probably fair to say this film is decent litmus test of how compassionate viewers are. Are we willing to do the hard work of understanding the title character? Are we willing to hang in there with her through her moments of irrational panic and paranoia? Does any of it resonate with us? And if not then why not?  The whole of this narrative is as open ended as life itself but it's also as honest as anyone could ask for. 

The film has a sublime and surprising ending but it is one that neatly reveals the goal of the director. Thjs is a film all about empathy, that in it's search for truth comes dangerously close to melodrama or pretension. But it also contains a powerful statement about human community and the lengths we are and are not prepared to go to catch those who fall through the cracks. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

  • Sean Durkin
  • Sean Durkin
  • Elizabeth Olsen
  • Christopher Abbott
  • Brady Corbet
  • Hugh Dancy
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Sean DurkinElizabeth OlsenChristopher AbbottBrady CorbetHugh DancyDramaMysteryThriller

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