By Eric Plaag
When I was doing graduate work in fiction writing, my professor Richard Bausch once said that the successful short story leaves the reader with one of two reactions: “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” or “Dear Lord, what are these characters ever going to do next?” I have always felt that the latter of these two responses is the one that should always guide writers of suspense stories. After all, we usually care less about the resolution (which is almost always unsatisfying in suspense and horror films) than we do about the realizations that characters must come to when confronting the horror that bedevils them.
So, after I drove for an hour and a half in a driving rainstorm to see the new psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene from writer and director Sean Durkin, I entered the theater hoping only that Durkin might live up to the latter of Professor Bausch’s guidelines. Even this was a high hope, given that this is Durkin’s feature-length debut. To my delight and surprise, Durkin exceeded all expectations and somehow managed to nail both of Bausch’s standards squarely on the head. I also think I may never look at psychological thrillers in the same way ever again.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens on a farm setting in the Catskills, which the viewer quickly deduces is more Manson-style commune than the high-end hipster organic community co-op it at first appears to be. The men, most of them in their teens or early twenties, eat separately from the women, who wait in dutiful abeyance until the room is cleared. These same dozen or so women, also in their teens or early twenties, sleep together on the floor in one room of the ramshackle farmhouse, a couple of infants fussing nearby throughout the night. Here, in the predawn hours, we see Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) slip out of the house with a small backpack, then race into the woods when she realizes she has been spotted. The others follow, and one of the men — a tracker who we later learn lures other women to the farm — finds Marcy May at a diner in town and urges her to return, even as Marcy May flinches in his presence. She defers to buy time, then calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), identifying herself as Martha and begging where she clearly knows she should not to be picked up and taken away.
What follows is a haunting and deeply disturbing narrative that seamlessly slips in and out of Martha’s nightmares, memories, and building madness to reveal a present that she tries always to keep one step ahead of the frightening past she has left behind. In one early moment of linguistic patter that is both pregnant with implication and startling for what it reveals about Martha’s mental state, Martha asks Lucy how far they are. “From what?” Lucy asks. “From yesterday,” Martha says bluntly. Aspiring screenwriters take note: This is how you’re supposed to write. But Martha also seems unable to divorce herself from the habits she picked up at the farm, swimming nude in the Connecticut lake that Lucy’s house fronts on, in spite of the presence of yuppified neighbors who would not look kindly on such behavior. She’s angry too, daring to ask Lucy — who has married Ted (Hugh Dancy) during Martha’s two-year absence — whether it’s true that married couples never fuck. At first these inconsistencies in behavior seem like the stylized protestations of a hipster girl who believes herself wiser than her elders. When Martha wets the bed in her sleep, though, we know with certainty just how much of a defense mechanism her anger is. Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is simply outstanding, evoking comparisons to Maggie Gyllenhaal but displaying a fragility that is all her own and that makes one guffaw at how all of this talent could have possibly come out of an Olsen family better known for Elizabeth’s older but certainly not wiser twin sisters.
At the center of Martha’s terror is Patrick (John Hawkes), played with the creepy self-assurance that is making Hawkes one of the finest actors of the decade. But Patrick is no mere retread of Hawkes’s other roles, such as the vicious meth head Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. Patrick is the type of charismatic figure who can persuade young women with only a hint of his smile to change their names from Martha to Marcy May. He’s the kind of worldly-wise father figure who can walk up to a girl and tell her publicly that he knows that her father abandoned her, then persuade her to allow him to drug her and rape her on the floor of a barn because it will “cleanse” her. He’s the kind of misogynist who can tell a young woman who has watched him rape, coerce, abuse, and manipulate the dozen or so other young women of their community that she is his favorite, and she’ll believe it. His performance of “Marcy’s Song” during the community meeting on the day after he has “cleansed” Martha may be one of the most fascinating but skin-crawling moments on film ever, if only because — just for a second — you might find yourself falling in love with him, too. Patrick is a monster of the highest order, far more terrifying than anything you’ll see in a slashfest or a creature feature, and certainly more unnerving than the young Charlie Manson on whom some might think he is modeled. If this year’s Best Actor Oscar contest doesn’t come down to a footrace between Hawkes and Michael Shannon from Take Shelter, then the Academy damn well better be disbanded.
These fine performances aside, what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene work is Durkin’s direction and the stunning cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes. This is a film that lets you sit with its characters and contemplate them, even when the silences are uncomfortable. The transitions among Martha’s memories, nightmares, and present are as murky and dark as the lake waters in which we see her swim several times, a panoply of confusion and shafted light and limbs akimbo, all immersed and awash in blackness or deepest brown-grays. I would call it beautiful, but it is far more than that, which may say just as much about our overuse of that word as it does about how jawdroppingly stunning this film is to watch. At times its look is reminiscent of the vastly underappreciated McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and given the longing and desperation of that film, I don’t think this is an accident. We do not know why until it is too late to change things or at least see them differently — just as it was for Martha — but she is utterly broken and with good reason, and those immersions in darkness help us feel the terror and implication of circumstance that she does. Sound is important here, too, as Martha insists after spending many nights lying awake in the darkness of her sister’s house, listening to something striking the roof, something that reminds her of an event of which she will not speak and that we do not see until nearly the end of the film. As someone who lives deep in the woods, I know now that I will never again think the same way about the mysterious objects that sometimes strike our roof on windy nights.
“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or something you dreamed?” Martha asks Lucy late in the film, but Lucy can’t even understand the question. This is the horror of Martha’s story, the realization that there are experiences in the world so terrible that we can never shake them, we can never explain them, not to anyone, and we can never truly understand how or why they occurred. As the film wraps back on its early imagery, we see the multitude of reminders that Martha must endure about her past, even though she is distanced from it by those three thin hours of time from her escape. We also see the ways in which Martha’s hopefulness and idealized imaginings of how the world should be have been shattered by the very people who infused her with those insights. At one point, Patrick reassures her that “Death brings you to now and makes you truly present. And that’s Nirvana, and that’s pure love. So, death is pure love.” Patrick may indeed be right, but the paradox of his actions and his beliefs and the horrors that occur at his direction leave Martha rudderless and totally empty, but not in the good way that Zen monks might espouse.
Martha Marcy May Marlene features no gore, nothing that is so viscerally disturbing that it is difficult to watch as it occurs. And yet its rhythms and imagery are so frightening, so harrowing, that I do not know whether I could watch it again any time soon. Perhaps this is because I was left with the satisfied but deeply unsettling sensation that, as Bausch once said, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” and I’m not sure I want frequent reminders that this is how the world is. As Marcy rides off in the last seconds of the film, though, knowing that the terror, the danger is finally catching up with her, I also found myself thinking that other thought: “Dear Lord, what will she ever do next?” That’s what a horror film should be. That’s what it should do. And you can count me truly horrified.
Theaters, 5 out of 5 stars