The first scenes of Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) don’t indicate the beginning of a real nerve-wrecking, dark thriller. There is a farm somewhere in the woods. There are people working in the garden. It looks peaceful. Then there is dinner…a weird one. First, some men, around ten of them, are eating their meal in absolute silence, while the women sit on the stairs waiting their turn. After they too finish eating, everyone goes to their beds in the group bedrooms – women and men, again, separately. So it’s not just a farm. Perhaps it’s a commune of some kind, maybe? But when we see one of the girls, Marcy, fleeing the house and running away to the woods, we suspect that the farm’s secret is far darker…
Elisabeth Olsen plays Martha (and shows some impressive acting skills – I know, who would have thought that any Olsen could do that?) as a troubled young girl, an orphan, with an absent sister. Like many other lost young souls, she is accepted by the sect and invited to stay in a farm where other young, equally troubled people live happy lives under the watchful eye of their charismatic leader – Patrick (John Hawkes). Martha is given a name Marcy May and forced to get through the special ‘cleansing’ to cut her ties with her past and enter the group, a sort of rite of passage. Namely, she is being raped by Patrick.
Rape, group sex, blind obedience – they soon become regular parts of Marcy May’s new life. Calm and smart, protective and understanding – Patrick is a master of words that just make all these things sound normal, good and right. Marcy is being convinced that her first night with Patrick was the most wonderful event of her life and, soon enough, she convinces a newcomer to the group to believe the same thing. Chosen by the leader as his favourite, Marcy gets to see a lot more of the group’s highly illegal practices, and that pushes her towards running away.
After successfully escaping the farm, Marcy calls her sister Lucy, who picks her up from the bus stop and takes her home. We meet the sect victim at the moment of her escape and we learn about her past through the series of flashbacks. Marcy tries desperately to get back her old life from before the sect – Martha’s life. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is doing her best to help Martha fight her demons. The problem is that Martha-Marcy never explains what these demons really are, so when her behavior gets weirder and weirder, not even the loving sister can handle it. On top of everything, Martha slowly becomes certain that she is being followed by her previous ‘family’.
Sean Durkin’s movie is a dark, gripping thriller that keeps you on your toes from the beginning until the very end. Limited music background or lack thereof increases the suspense. Mostly though, it is a dramatic story of a person’s fight for normality, truth, and finding peace. Martha loses the ability to distinguish the past from the present – I am not an expert on sects and I hope never to get to know how one works, but it’s possible that their tactics do include teaching ‘different’ rules of life, cutting you off the reality and getting so deep under your skin that you no longer know what is right and what is real.
Living with them is wrong – living without them becomes a downward spiral of never-ending paranoia.