The first few shots are filled with weight—the clink of glassware, the slow thud of a hammer—and each shot is still. There is no panning or zooming until Martha Marcy May Marlene wakes up early in the morning and runs through the woods to town. The camera shakes, the ground rises up, and from that moment on there is no peace. This is a film filled with tension that begs to be released—but in the instances in which emotion blooms like dark ink on a page the tension doubles, leaving the viewer in the grips of terror or horror or both. The story is told in layers: the past overlaps with the present in seamless cuts, presenting an image of a woman who was initially discarded and then twisted into something she didn’t want to be, a woman who struggles against everything and everyone in an effort to survive.
Elizabeth Olsen is transcendent—Martha is a deeply damaged woman, but resisting the temptation to characterize damage as weakness, Olsen imbues Martha with the sharp resistance of broken glass—in some scenes we can see rage coil in her small frame, suddenly exploding in a few powerful words. Her sister Lucy, played with finesse by Sarah Paulson, bears much of the brunt of that rage. But she is not blameless. She and her husband, Ted (a very accurate Hugh Dancy) cannot or will not understand the pain carved so desperately on Martha’s face. Sean Durkin, the director, has somehow captured a sense of dualism: because the viewer knows Martha’s story the viewer can understand her actions, but at the same time the viewer knows exactly why Lucy and Ted grow increasingly frustrated with the withdrawn Martha.
The film is quiet, and at times uncomfortably beautiful: shortly after a terribly violent and sexual scene, Patrick—the cult leader whose influence dominates the story—picks up a guitar and plays a haunting and simply pretty song about Martha which sickened me. That someone so warped could produce something so gorgeous—it was perverse, it made all sorts of emotions rise up in me. In another scene, Martha and Lucy speak until Martha bursts into tears. “Lucy,” she calls out as Lucy walks away. Lucy stops. The words that then tumble out of Martha’s mouth are completely devoid of emotion and cuttingly clear. The impact of those words was such that everyone in the theater gasped at the same time.
There are so many themes in this film: sexuality, violence, trust, betrayal, family—it just begs me to write a paper on one or all of them. This film is rich in a way it didn’t have to be: the handling of the topic could easily have fallen into the realm of heavy-handedness. Even the ending, which is one of those non-endings that people hate, has a particular purpose. The tension that continues to build throughout the film could not be easily resolved, tied up neatly and put away. The sudden cut to the credits frees the viewer from the grips of adrenaline and lets the viewer walk out, legs shaking, to ponder the questions raised.