Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer/director Sean Durkin’s feature film debut, is a powerful psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman rapidly unraveling amidst her attempt to reclaim a normal life after fleeing from a cult and its charismatic leader (John Hawkes, Academy Award nominee for Winter’s Bone). Seeking help from her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. When her memories trigger a chilling paranoia that her former cult could still be pursuing her, the line between Martha’s reality and delusion begins to blur.
Woman Escapes a Cult but Not Her Own Past
As its title suggests, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a story of fractured identity, in which a young woman tries to negotiate incompatible versions of herself, all the while wondering who she really is. The film, Sean Durkin’s impressively self-assured debut feature, switches back and forth between two periods in its protagonist’s life — an indeterminate span when she is part of a cult in rural New York and the time just after her escape from the group, when she has found refuge with her older sister and brother-in-law in their rented lakeside vacation house.
The sister knows her as Martha, though she does not necessarily know her very well. The leader of the cult, who claims spiritual and physical intimacy with all his followers, has christened her Marcy May. (Marlene is the all-purpose pseudonym female cult members use when answering the telephone.)
Whatever her name, and whatever her mood — it ranges from vaguely unsettled to acutely anguished — Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen, a very pretty actress whose on-camera presence is at once vivid and interestingly blurred. Her features seem to shift, appearing sharp from some angles and soft from others, and her body can look alternately sturdy and frail, depending on the circumstances.
Ms. Olsen’s performance is both the key to the film and the source of its sometimes frustrating opacity. Like Todd Haynes’s “Safe” (though with less ambition or intellectual rigor), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is, in part, a psychological case study of someone whose inner life is permanently out of reach, if it even exists at all.
Martha’s background is left deliberately sketchy. We know that she and her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), have some family unhappiness behind them, but we never learn precisely what happened between them, or to their parents. Nor do we know what drew Martha into the thrall of Patrick, the Svengali of an agrarian sex commune whose sun-dappled fields and lithe young bodies suggest a spiritually ambitious Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. But it is clear that her passivity and uncertainty make her perfect prey for Patrick and his group.
Everything is friendly and relaxed at first, with fatherly affection and an occasional rebuke from Patrick, who is played with sinewy, sinister charisma by John Hawkes. Gradually an uglier side of his community emerges, and it starts to look less like a progressive summer camp than a new incarnation of the Manson family. Female acolytes are initiated into the group by being drugged and raped by the leader, and the most disturbing scenes show Martha undergoing this ordeal and then, later, preparing a new recruit for it.
But life with Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), has its own difficulties, and Martha’s disgust at what she sees as their shallow, materialistic sham of normalcy suggests that she has held onto some of Patrick’s teachings even after fleeing his world. Some of her behavior — plunging into the lake without a bathing suit, curling up on Ted and Lucy’s bed after interrupting their love-making — indicates that the cult has stripped away her sense of propriety and her inhibitions.
The film does not necessarily see this as a bad thing, and not only because the camera relishes the sight of Ms. Olsen with no clothes on. The narrative structure, switching back and forth between Patrick’s utopia and Lucy and Ted’s middle-class dream, creates a sense of symmetry, or even equivalence, between the two places. In both of them displays of compassion and generosity mask selfish agendas, and solicitude turns into collusion. Ted, an arrogant architect with a British accent, is far less compelling than Patrick, a soulful monster but not necessarily a hypocrite. And the cult at least supplied her with friends.
Mr. Durkin conveys Martha’s dissociation by means of a number of compositional and formal strategies. He shoots Ms. Olsen in off-center close-ups, and frequently induces confusion for the viewer at the beginning of a scene, about where it is taking place. Are we back at Patrick’s farm, or at home with Ted and Lucy?
After a while this technique starts to seem like a trick, and the ingenuity of the movie’s structure begins to feel evasive rather than probing. The drama is all in the jumps and juxtapositions, rather than in any sustained consideration of Martha’s experience.
She remains a blank space in the middle of a film that is an impressive piece of work without achieving quite the emotional impact it intends. We are witnessing not the disintegration of a personality, but rather the careful construction of a series of effects. Patrick periodically criticizes his disciples, including Martha, for failing to be open enough with him, and that is also a shortcoming of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which is a bit too coy, too clever and too diffident to believe in.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin; director of photography, Jody Lee Lipes; edited by Zac Stuart-Pontier; music by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi; production design by Chad Keith; costumes by David Tabbert; produced by Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Chris Maybach and Patrick Cunningham; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.
WITH: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), Christopher Abbott (Max), Brady Corbet (Watts), Hugh Dancy (Ted), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), John Hawkes (Patrick), Louisa Krause (Zoe) and Sarah Paulson (Lucy).
Martha Marcy May Marlene : INTERVIEW WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR SEAN DURKIN
Q: This is your first feature film. What was it like making the transition from short films and producing? How do you feel your previous experience helped you?
Sean Durkin: It wasn’t a big transition because I’ve been making films with the same group of people since we were all at school. We made our shorts with the same team and then when I produced features, you’re just on set doing what you’ve always done with the same group of people. The only difference is that you’re doing it for more days.
Q: So the team you’re with, did you meet all of them in school?
SD: I met my two partners, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, at school and we wanted to start a company, so we started collaborating and making each other’s short films. We started to expand our team. Our editor Zach Stuart-Pontier was also in class with us, our cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, sound recordist Micah Bloomberg and on and on. We just developed this team all at NYU and every film we do, it expands a little bit, but our core is always the same.
Q: So the team grew organically…
SD: Totally organically.
Q: While this is your first feature film, it’s not your first film you’ve both written and directed. How did your story idea come to you? Did you write this film with yourself in mind as the one to direct it, bring it to life?
SD: Yes, always, always. We set up our company with the goal of creating a place where we’d support each other’s first features and make them the way we wanted to. We finished producing Afterschool, which was our first feature as a company, and then it was sort of my turn to direct. I had this desire to make a cult movie that was modern, present-day, naturalistic and non-religious.The most interesting thing to me was that period right after someone leaves [a cult]. I’d always looked at pictures of women before and after they’d been in the group, and you could see the transformation physically. Even after a year, they look like completely different people. What happens to someone to make them transform like that? And then I started to imagine, well, what happens next? How do you make that transition, when you realize something is terribly wrong about what’s happening to you, and you have the wherewithal to get out? Where are you left? Who do you trust? What do you believe?
A friend of mine actually came forward, as I was writing, and said that she had been involved in something like this and she wanted to share her stories with me. She said she doesn’t remember anything about the first three weeks out; she was in a basic survival mode. All that she remembered was that she lied to everybody about where she had been. She just made up different things, anything she could think of. And that she was paranoid that he was following her, so she’d imagine that she saw the leader of the cult everywhere she went. That state of paranoia, confusion, dread, was just what I thought would be the most engaging cinematic journey.
Q: Did the film turn out exactly the way you had written it? Or was it more fluid and improvised?
SD: I don’t know if films ever turn out exactly how they’re written, because you shoot a scene and it doesn’t have the weight you thought it had. You shoot another scene and it has way more weight than you thought. You put two scenes together and you decided they’re just not both needed so you cut it down to one. It changes, but in the end, it’s very much the script, and the essence of the script.
Q: What challenges did you face to make sure your vision was fully realized?
SD: There are challenges in everything. Everything you do is a challenge in making a movie; every day is just fighting against time. Our budget was tight but we’ve been fortunate enough to learn how to make films that are frugal but nothing is compromised in the look.
Q: You seem to have a team of actors that meshed very well together on screen, and that was definitely a help.
SD: Definitely! The atmosphere overall on set was really great. It’s so much about the experience, like that wonderful experience of making film. Because you’re dealing with a lot of dark material and it’s really great to be able to be around friends at the end of the day. And they’re all friends; we’re not a bunch of friends who decided to work together—we all started working together and became a family.
Q: How did you go about selecting your cast? What was it about each character or actor that you felt was a good fit for each role?
SD: I have a great casting director named Susan Shopmaker and she really handpicked a lot of people. I feel oftentimes that casting directors don’t get to fully do their jobs because producers pick casts, or financing is based on certain cast members. We are fortunate enough to not have that restriction. I really believed in her and trusted her and I wanted her to fully do her job. She basically just picked Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes. We sent them the script and luckily they responded well to it, and I spoke with them, or met with them. I was familiar with their work before and, for me, casting is very much about how you respond to somebody. I responded well to them and they responded well to me. We all got along and you could just sort of feel it.
And then with Lizzy [Elizabeth Olsen], I wanted an unknown actress and I wanted to see everybody that I could. So I saw every girl in New York, and some in L.A., that put themselves on tape, that were between the ages of 18 and 24, and really searched for her. You can’t always tell what you want, but you know what you don’t want. And then Susan, in her mind, had a few people that she thought could be good. She always saves those for last. So Lizzy came in on the last day of casting, or the second-to-last day of casting, because we want to see everybody. And immediately, on her first read, I knew there was just something heads above everybody else.
Q: She definitely projects a certain vulnerability with her eyes…
SD: Absolutely, along with an inner strength as well. As a person, she’s very vibrant and strong, and so I thought if that was inside this fragile character, maybe there would be a little more depth, or we’d see more and get a hint of what this person could have been, or was at one point in time.
Q: Your use of lighting really plays up the aspects of the power and the darkness this group of people held over their members. Was that process difficult to achieve?
SD: No, we made a few key decisions and just went from there. We decided that there wouldn’t be a difference in the style of lighting, or in the style of the film, between the lake and the farm. We decided the look of the film would be grainier and the blacks would be milkier. We felt like it fit the state of mind of the farm, where it’s sort of dusty and grimy. It gives it a little bit of life and a little bit of worn out quality. An obvious choice would be to make the farm look one way and make the lake look another but because you’re in Martha’s state of mind, you want to be able to go back and forth seamlessly and never have any sort of visual cue because the locations, as they become present, are enough of a clue. So it really came down from that and tended to be what Jody and I liked and felt fit the mood of the scene that we were approaching.
Q: What was your favorite part of making this film?
SD: There’s so many. Such a great experience all the way through. I don’t have a favorite, but overall I really loved shooting all the big scenes at the farm. We had a huge cast—12 cast members and a crew of around 30—and it’s this big group of 50 people with my producers and everybody that came to visit. It felt like a very collaborative environment. We were really in a rhythm. We’re working really hard but also, at night, just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. It was that experience. And at the lake was also wonderful in its own way, but it became a smaller group and cast. It was funny. The atmosphere totally changed to really fit the way the atmosphere changes in the movie. It was cool.
Q: Congratulations on your Sundance award (Directing Award) and nomination (Grand Jury Prize). That sets the bar rather high on your next project. What are your plans?
SD: I’m writing a new script that I’m very excited about. I’m not talking about it just yet…
Q: C’mon, no spoilers?
SD: (laughing) It’s not even in the sense of spoiling, but because when you’re this early in writing, the whole thing could change tomorrow. But I’m excited and I have a lot of interests and a lot of areas I’d like to tackle in filmmaking.