After seeing this film and last year’s Winter’s Bone one thing is for sure: John Hawkes is one scary dude. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a long title for a simple storyline. Martha is a young woman who found herself in a backwoods cult of sorts and the story comes in when she is ready to leave this not so humble abode. The events that lead to her decision to leave are sprinkled throughout the film as flash backs of horror. We find Martha, or Marcy May as she is called in her cult family, running from the house in the woods to a nearby town where she makes a phone call to her sister. After about a three hour drive away from there, she is welcome to stay with her sister and new husband in their lush, expensive vacation home.
Everyone always wonders what it actually takes to brainwash people into joining cults. This film paints a picture that’s not so black and white about that very detail. Through flashbacks and memories we learn that the “family” gains her trust by making her feel special, then brainwashes her with crazy ideas that seem okay at the time because there are no other families around to compare them to. Watching the breakdown of a young girl is no picnic. Director Sean Durkin does an excellent job of portraying the fear and delusions that were instilled in Martha in the two years she spent with this backwoods family.
It’s never certain what it takes to get these young girls to leave their homes and venture out to the back forty with these strange young guys, but we do see the process once they arrive on the farm. It’s absolutely heart-breaking to see that most of the brainwashing comes from the other women in the home. The men only serve as the brut force needed if someone steps out of line.
There is a leader of sorts, Patrick (Hawkes), who has dibs on all the ladies’ nether regions. One of the most frightening scenes is watching Martha come to on the floor of what looked to be a barn and Patrick was on top of her having his way. Later we see why she was passed out on the floor as she is asked to drug the newest girl for Patrick.
Many scenes are drenched in fear while others are steeped in confusion. Young Martha has missed a stage of development while living out on this farm and it shows now that she is within civilization again with her sister. Elizabeth Olsen (younger sis of the Olsen twins) plays Martha brilliantly. She is able to accurately portray fear in her eyes and doesn’t actually have a huge dialogue to play off of. True talent will always shine through when an actor is told to act with their face or body language and not so much with their mouth.
Probably the most impressive role, however, is John Hawkes as the leader of this group. Born and raised in rural Minnesota, his textured look and ability to pull off a southern accent like he was born with it add to the creepy mystery he emits during the film. His character is one of those powerful men that you never really see raise a hand, yet everyone fears him.
The artistic approach that Durkin took with this film only emphasizes the paranoia that Martha is haunted with after leaving the cult. The film fills us with an ambiguity that Patrick may be looking for her, and may have found her at her sister’s lofty home in Connecticut. With a haunting score filled mainly with the sounds of wind against the trees or pine cones falling on the roof, we are only left with our own imagination and Martha’s fears pouring out of the screen to fill our minds.
I give Martha Marcy May Marlene 4.5 out of 5
by Angela Davis