This year, the annual film to inspire typically half-baked inquiries over reality vs. fantasy, questions such as “is it all in her head?”, and roundabout discussions entertaining such insipid snippets of dialogue as “did you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?”, is Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that, as the title suggests, apes the classic arthouse cliche of a woman with an unstable identity. But while the extratextual experience of the film may make the eyes roll, there’s no doubting the unnerving impact of the film itself, which Durkin – a first-time writer/director with the aesthetic precision of a seasoned auteur – confidently orchestrates. As much as Durkin embraces and recycles (sometimes self-consciously, often not) the conventions of the independent thriller, he does so with such conviction that the conventions no longer feel conventional. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that cancels out its own shortcomings through the dexterity of its craftsmanship and the abundance of its termitic ideas on how to tease, thrill, and confound.
Structurally, Durkin follows a familiar formula: an initial set piece that attempts to build up a handful of mysteries while simultaneously refusing to explain those mysteries, the subsequent gradual accumulation of details forming a full picture of the mystery, and the final hint, just before the roll of the credits, of some new mystery once the prior one has been comprehended. Perhaps the word mystery is misleading though, because Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) mystery is less of a definable presence than an enigmatic psychological condition, and it isn’t so much solved as it is fleshed-out. Her story is fragmented into two timelines that the film hopscotches between: 1) an extended stay at a rural cult managed by Patrick (John Hawkes), from which she escapes to 2) her estranged sister Lucy’s (Sarah Paulsen) isolated lakeside getaway. It’s not quite a simple case of past and present, however, because Martha’s memories of the cult are so vivid in her mind that it’s as if they’re submerging her ability to remain mentally tethered to the physical world around her. Everything shown in the film is a part of Martha’s harrowing here and now, where mental fragments lead to impulsive actions disconnected from reality.
The realization that the film is a portrait of Martha’s subjectivity does not come instantly due to Durkin’s emphasis on long takes, his suppression of extra-diegetic sound, and his refusal to write his way inside his main character’s head space, all of which are general signifiers of objectivity. But what Durkin has achieved is a way of presenting the subjectivity of a person who no longer understands her own ideals, desires, and actions, who indeed is a mere physical shell missing a cohesive soul. Thematically speaking, the film’s post-Manson indictment of the identity-shattering mob mentality of cults couldn’t be clearer, but it’s the depth of detail that Durkin and Olsen infuse into Martha’s character that really allows the parable to breathe. The longer Martha stays with her sister, the more her irreversible psychological issues come to the fore. Early on, she strips down entirely right beside Lucy and her workaholic husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) to take a quick mid-afternoon dip in the lake, a sign that the new-age hippie attitudes of Patrick’s camp still dictate her behavior, and later, in the outburst that finally puts Lucy and Ted into the mindset that they can no longer live with her, Martha openly chastises Ted for his allegedly soulless working-class lifestyle. That Lucy takes so long to come around to the idea that Martha may have issues that go beyond mere sibling rivalry is evidence of Durkin’s secondary critique of bourgeoisie complacency. In effect, this multi-leveled analysis of the modern world puts the film in the Haneke territory, coldly observing human behavior without attempting to explain the psychological perplexities.
This detached perspective works so well because Martha Marcy May Marlene is ultimately a horror film about the failure to understand ourselves and others, a crisis that not even communication can solve. In fact, the one scene where Martha and Lucy appear to be having an emotional breakthrough suddenly devolves into another one of the chilling, one-sided verbal beatdowns that Martha regularly churns out, outbursts of angry, vague rhetoric that sound like they are stemming from another vessel within her. These vessels include the wandering free-spirit disdaining materialism, the immature teenage girl, the insecure younger sister taking every opportunity to predict her older sister’s inadequacy as a mother, the confident “teacher and leader” that the members of the cult insist she is, and the spectacle of Olsen’s performance is her ability to seamlessly transition between them. This fracturing of the self is marked in some ways by the progression of the editing, which vacillates between moments of serenity at the cult and horrifying episodes of sexual and verbal terror, usually match-cut with a scene provoking a similar emotional response at the lake house. Durkin’s imagination in stitching together these two emotional realms within Martha seems boundless. The fluidity with which Martha exits one state of mind and enters another is evoked no better than in a startling cut from Martha jumping off Ted’s motorboat and suddenly landing in a quarry with fellow cult members, the camera floating around underwater to a deep hum and glimpsing nude bodies through the murky darkness.
Durkin is collaborating with hugely talented cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes here, and their collective achievements powerfully enhance the immediacy of Martha’s horror. The film is reliant upon strategic uses of negative space offered by long lenses. Figures are framed against vast expanses of blurred background, often with their backs turned against it as if pictorially predicting an incoming threat that never appears. Windows, in particular, appear in-frame continuously after a breaking-and-entering thread is revealed in the narrative of the cult, elevating the tension further. Similar visual strategies are utilized by Lucrecia Martel, most hauntingly in The Headless Woman, and both techniques are traceable to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s a method of creating unseen horror that Durkin handles beautifully; as the tension seems to rise exponentially, the film gets slower and more teasing in its rhythm (one fade out/fade in evaporates the image like molasses, and it’s one of the most nail-biting uses of the fade in film history). Durkin and Lipes also manipulate the robust texture of 35 mm to achieve a color space where blacks are more brown than black and the surface of the image feels milky, like a matte photograph. All are methods of conjuring a subtly off-kilter physical reality.
As for the aforementioned semantic debate, it’s all rather negligible whether Martha actually witnesses (or witnessed) any number of scenes that deliberately tow a line between reality and illusion or whether they’re elaborate projections of a mind tainted by perversions of group behavior and astray from functional morality. Either way one looks at it, they’re visions of a person disconnecting gradually from “normal life”, incapable of pressing on with society as the traumas at the cult continue to weigh on her. Looking at a confused female through the prism of post-traumatic stress disorder is nothing new in American cinema, but the care with which it’s handled here is refreshing. Durkin’s tantalizing final image cannot be attacked from the angle of reality vs. illusion because Martha Marcy May Marlene becomes more fascinating the less you deal with it in psychological binaries. The film is about the enigma of psychology, the fear that we may not be able to pinpoint any scientific justifications for human behavior after something as horrendous as the events at the cult.