The vast majority of horror movies have got it wrong. Perhaps what scares us the most as human beings is indeed fear of the unknown, but by far the scariest thing that we face is what we ourselves are capable of.
Atmosphere is set in place before the film even begins. The music starts working on us as the opening titles, in menacing orange capitals, give way to the sound of a hammer hitting nails into wood, and images of what seems to be a farm house somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. There is a small community living there, men and women, seemingly happy and in peace. Those opening images are so subtle and unsettling: notice, for example, the fact that the men and women eat separately, the evening meal seeming like a ritual, taken in silence. Everything seems to be running smoothly, until one morning, quite unexpectedly, a young woman decides to run away through the forest into town.
This is Martha. She is a damaged, insecure young woman, and most of the film follows Martha as she contacts her sister, who she hasn’t spoken to in two years, and who takes Martha in after her ordeal. But what was her ordeal? There is a moment towards the end when Lucy (the older sister) screams at Martha, begging her to disclose the details of what happened. But Martha, alone and confused, answers honestly when she says, on the verge of mental breakdown, “I don’t know.”
What makes this film so frightening is how brilliantly it shows how easily and insidiously the human mind can be influenced and manipulated. It gradually becomes clear to us that Martha has escaped from a cult, headed by John Hawkes (of Winter’s Bone fame). They take in vulnerable, damaged youngsters and introduce them to their community. Martha was one such impressionable soul – coming from a broken family home (the details of which are not fully disclosed: a wise decision). These people are utterly convincing with their trite but seemingly earnest maxims of love and fraternity; even more disturbing is the fact that they actually believe them, and are mere pawns themselves. The only person that may be consciously manipulative is the Hawkes character, whose charm and charisma conceals something far more sinister underneath.
It would be unfair to disclose anything more about that. The film also works as a stunning character study. The relationship between Martha and Lucy is strained to say the least. Lucy feels a duty to help Martha, and feels guilt for something buried in their childhood, but she now has a husband and wants to start a family. It is made clear very early on that her husband Ted finds Martha a burden, and both Lucy and Ted find Martha’s behaviour at turns bizarre and irritating. Martha is in need of help, and yet feels ever more abandoned as the movie continues.
This film showcases the talents of two fascinating discoveries in the film industry. One is Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha, whose stunning performance, encompassing perfectly her character’s immaturity, vulnerability, confusion and growing paranoia, is a joy to watch. The second is the film’s writer-director, Sean Durkin. With this indie thriller, he has certainly made a name for himself, and I await his future projects with great interest. Already, he has displayed a confidence and adroitness in his medium that is quite humbling as an outsider. The colours are muted and darkened, and the editing is masterful, often disorientating and confusing, plunging us headlong into Martha’s world of perpetual fear.
The way in which Durkin builds suspense is admirable. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, in which Martha is being taught how to fire a gun, that is so frightening in its psychological intensity that the cut to the next scene is akin to the diffusing of a bomb in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. So much of the film relies on atmosphere: from lighting and the position of shadows, to the menacing soundtrack, promising the distant but always present danger of violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene could be used for analysis in a film studies course. For such a long time, the viewer can’t actually pin down what is so wrong about this cult. It is simply a feeling that makes your flesh crawl, an intuitive instinct telling you that something about this community is badly wrong. When the mechanics of the cult are finally revealed, it is horrifying, but those opening fifty minutes are so important in understanding just how this group of people can convince others that what they do is perfectly natural. So impressive are their methods of gentle persuasion that the ‘pupils’ eventually become ‘teachers’, guiding newcomers in the same direction. The event that catalyses Martha’s decision to escape is eventually revealed to us, but even after that, she is far from free, and further from understanding what is wrong with the world she left (even defending it indirectly to Ted one night in a blazing row). She only has her innate fear and convictions to go on.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an excellent film. Its depths are frightening, and it will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. Many will find the film’s ending unsatisfying and flawed, but just think what the effect would have been if it had ended differently. The film, after all, relies on ambiguity for much of its effect. To some extent, we are left abandoned to our own imaginations as the movie closes, with the cult’s power of control and manipulation being emphasised to haunting effect. Both technically and psychologically, Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite an accomplishment, and I have to admit to having had a bit of trouble sleeping after having seen it. What can I say? This is my idea of a scary movie!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (February ’12)