The film's ending is a stroke of genius. Not because of its ambiguous nature but because for the first time in so long, a filmmaker finally knew when to stop. Many films that have come out in recent years begin to ruin itself because it keeps on running long after its legs start to wear out. Sean Durkin's debut feature film Martha Marcy May Marlene has perfect pacing. It unravels in such a slow, ponderous way that gives enough time for its audience to think about what they have just seen while never extending a scene's running time long enough to invite boredom. When the film finally ends, it is unanticipated but doesn't feel abrupt. This is the kind of story that will feel less powerful and make less of an impact if given a conclusion. Sometimes you just have to deny satisfaction to give satisfaction. If you haven't seen this, you'll know what I mean when you see the ending.
Martha, played by the exciting new talent Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the sister of those twins) escapes what seems to be a cult in the Catskill. She is picked up by her sister, Lucy, and taken back to her lake house she shares with her husband in Connecticut. Both sisters have not seen each other for a while, but there are noticeable tensions and differences between them. Scenes in the lake house are intercut with various experiences Martha had in the cult, including a very heavy scene involving a shooting practice and baby kittens.
This intercutting is one of the film’s great strengths and it’s a smart directorial decision because it lets us compare the two time periods of Martha’s life. Ultimately at the end however, we find that the scenes in the cult and the scenes with Lucy are not that different from one another. She doesn’t necessarily heal or assimilate back to ‘normal’ society because the bourgeois setting Martha’s sister inhabits is just as cold and abusive as the cult. There is violence and sexual abuse in the cult but there is emotional abuse in the lake house. Lucy truly cares for Martha but she ends up hurting her anyway. When Martha talks with her brother-in-law about how he wants to start a family with Lucy, Martha simply laughs: “I just can’t imagine her holding a baby”.
This relationship brings out the interesting question of why people end up in cults in the first place. Was Martha’s family and sister so cold that they ended up pushing her away and forcing her to seek comfort and refuge with another kind of family. The cult is one that works off the land and they work to be able to sustain themselves and shut themselves off the world. This contrast highlights the divide between the materialistic and status-obsessed bourgeoisie and the self-reliant, alternative lifestyle the cult offers. The film explores this in a dinner scene when Lucy and her husband ask Martha what she wants to do with her life, her career and how she’s going to look after herself. She brushes off this suggestion asking why she can’t just live - or exist – without having to think about those capitalist concerns.
The cinematography is one of the best I’ve seen. Shadowy and darkness abound to match the dark and somber mood. But it’s never really pitch black. It’s shot in a way so what is meant to be black looks more dark grey – a kind of illusory feeling that mocks reality so that it looks more like memories, or dreams. Like you’ve just woken up from a nightmare early in the morning when the sun is just about to come up. There is still darkness but the light is there if you look hard enough.
The film leaves out much of the details – what the cult really stands for, the past history of Martha and her older sister and the reasons behind why she joined and left the cult. Always implying and never being overt, the film’s sinister tones turn more sinister and disquieting moments turn into moments of dread. It also leaves room for viewers to fill in the gaps and come to their own conclusions.
Elizabeth Olsen’s performance reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Both have quiet yet intense performances and their faces tell you everything the character is feeling. Both also have a hardened quality to them, one that evokes experience and hardship, a quality that feels bizarre and quietly creepy when seen from a young, beautiful face.