Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin)
This is my first stab at the Cinematic Immersion Tank, so I decided to go with doing a write up after each viewing. In future, I may do something more comprehensive, more of a critical analysis that isn’t as fragmented, but that would take a little more time. In the meantime, please watch Martha Marcy May Marlene *before* reading over this. I hope you find as much beauty and sadness as I did in this amazing film. My biggest take away from this film is the power of Elizabeth Olsen’s acting (she has some of the most powerful eyes) and the amazing supporting cast that surrounded her in this film. Every actor pulls so much depth out of their role.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about a young woman being tormented by memories of her time with a rural cult in the Catskills. These memories may not be entirely accurate and she begins to experience disturbing breaks with reality as the past, the present, and her delusions meld together. The film boasts the following impressive cast:
- Elizabeth Olsen as Martha/Marcy May/Marlene
- Sarah Paulson as Lucy, Martha’s sister
- Hugh Dancy as Ted, Lucy’s husband
- John Hawkes as Patrick, the cult leader
- Brady Corbet as Watts, a cult member Martha gets involved with
- Maria Dizzia as Katie, a veteran of the cult
- Louisa Krause as Zoe, Martha’s “friend” in the cult
- Julia Garner as Sarah/Sally, a girl Martha mentors in the cult
- Christopher Abbott as Max, a cult member who doesn’t seem to gel with Patrick
I had only seen the film once before, back in its original 2011 run in theaters. I thought it was quite good back then and it held up. It has the typical pacing for most moody, atmospheric indie film – very slow and intentional. The acting is wonderful, the sort of roles that demand restraint but still need emotion to come through. I think these are the harder roles because it takes an actor who has a good handle on knowing where the line is. Elizabeth Olsen gets across her paranoia and fear without being over the top, it feels like a simmer coming to a boil when she finally does begin to have loud outbursts. The rest of the cast does an excellent job supporting her, I particularly enjoyed Louisa Krause as Zoe. She is a mix of arrogance hiding insecurity and has some really tense and interesting scenes.
The film is definitely asking us to question Martha’s perception of reality. Early on in the film she asks her sister, “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” The last few scenes of the film bring that question back up with Martha alone in the lake and seeing someone she interprets as from the cult. Then, as she is driven to be checked into a mental health facility by her sister and brother in law, they encounter the same man standing in the road, who runs to his vehicle. The film leaves us hanging on this note. Has the man been sent by Patrick? Is he going to run them off the road? Is he going to follow them to the hospital? The look in Martha’s eyes just slightly betrays her paranoia. Is this simply how she will live for the rest of her life?
This second viewing had me focusing on details of the plot, particularly character interactions.
The relationship between Martha and Lucy is the most obvious place to start and there are a lot of subtle cues to explain their history together. When they go out on the boat with Ted, it’s revealed that Martha had lived with an Aunt Dora. Dora sounds like an obnoxious person to live with and it happened in the wake of the death of Martha and Lucy’s mother. Lucy was away at college and Martha begins to show a resentment of this over the course of the film. When Ted reveals to Martha that he and Lucy are trying for a child she has an raucous outburst of laughter. This is also the only scene where she allows herself to drink alcohol, something that the film makes very clear she is choosing to abstain from. Martha also tries to play off Lucy’s concerns about where she’s been for the last two years and even asks her if Martha blames her for anything. Then suddenly, Lucy claims Martha was the one who pushed her away.
Throughout her stay in Lucy and Ted’s house she’s told that she can do whatever she wants and doesn’t have to ask for permission. Lucy prods at her to open up and talk about her trauma but in an overly aggressive, judgemental way. Martha is chastised for dripping water on the bed after a shower, sitting cross legged on a kitchen counter, skinny dipping, and coming into the room and laying on the bed when Lucy and Ted have sex. It would seem obvious with the latter two that something deeply disturbing has happened to Martha. But Lucy is ill equipped to deal with mental illness. It can be read that she abandoned Martha when things got tough after their mother’s death. After the party outburst, and Lucy and Ted give Martha sleeping medication, she calls Lucy “mom” by mistake while still groggy and waking up. Lucy doesn’t correct her. The penultimate brutal exchange between Lucy and Martha ends with Lucy using Martha’s financial dependence as a way to shame her.
Martha’s father is only mentioned once in a flashback to the cult. Watts has an aside with Patrick, who then brings up the topic and Martha is visibly shocked and uncomfortable that Patrick knows her father abandoned her. Patrick has developed a pseudo-parental, pseudo-sexual relationship with the women in his cult, Katie acting as a sort of den mother through the way she first instructs and then physically punishes Martha. Patrick also seems to reject women once they are no longer willing to be used for sex by him. When Martha comes to him in the night simply wanting that comfort of sleeping in his arms, he betrays her in the morning with a second rape. After this, we never see the two of them interacting until the aftermath of the murder.
There’s a further rejection of Martha through the treatment of women in the cult. They are forced to wait until the men are done to eat their own meals. They are awoken in the morning by a man clanging a pot and spoon together. They are the ones who give the new girls drugged drinks to prepare them for Patrick, meaning they are trained to betray each other. When Sarah arrives at the farm and Martha is giving her the tour, she remarks that Katie’s baby looks just like Patrick. Martha explains how Patrick “only has boys”. This raises questions about what “has” means there. Is it that the women always end up with male children naturally or a woman in the cult who is found to be pregnant with a female is forced to have an abortion?
Lucy and Patrick are Martha’s parents in this film; female and male characters that act as authorities over Martha. We are led to believe that Lucy’s home is much more oppressive than Patrick’s, but as we continue to see flashbacks we find that Patrick’s is worse, though Lucy’s isn’t much better. In Patrick’s home freedom exists within the boundaries of following Patrick’s law. In Lucy’s home any deviation from accepted status quo etiquette is a major breach. Patrick begins with a laid back reprimand (Zoe and the cigarettes) but when his livelihood is truly threatened he becomes angry and aggressive (Martha’s trauma in the wake of the murder). Lucy claims she wants to understand Martha but refuses to honestly listen to her or examine her actions from a empathic perspective. Martha’s behavior is a direct affront to Lucy who is being such a good host, and why can’t Martha just be normal?
I also noticed the kale and ginger smoothie Martha rejects from her sister, looks identical to the blended drink Katie has her make to drug Sarah with. Implying, Martha had a similar drugged drink before she was raped by Patrick. The film does interesting things with showing how someone is pulled into the cult by showing it happen to both Martha and Sarah, but in reverse order. We don’t know how Martha ended up at the farm, we don’t know how she ended up in Patrick’s room being raped, but we see her role in making these things happen to Sarah. Re-naming by Patrick plays a role in the destruction of cult members’ identities. Patrick renames Martha to Marcy May, and in a throw away line calls Sarah “Sally”. Near the end of the film, Martha answers the farm’s phone as Marlene Lewis. We can see, written on the wall in pencil, instructions on answering the phone. All women answer as Marlene and all men as Marshall. This is the final stage of the identity removal in the cult, all men and women are the same.
This viewing I chose to focus on few details: Meal scenes, scenes in water (lakes, ponds, etc.), Katie, and Ted.
There are five meals in the film. The first is our introduction to Patrick’s cult. The men eat first, the women sit just outside the door waiting for their turn. I noticed Zoe playing with Sarah’s hair. Later we learn that Martha was Sarah’s mentor in the cult so in retrospective this emphasizes the distance Martha has from the group at this point. We never see Martha at the table when the women sit down to eat. She’s possibly out of frame or not there at wall. The first time Martha eats is after her escape. She’s sitting at a diner alone, eating grilled cheese or some similar sandwich. Watts enters and tries to scare her into going back to the cult with him. The waitress comes to take her plate and, when Watts learns she isn’t going to finish, keeps the plate and eats off of it. Here Martha immediately subverts the meal structure of the cult. Here the woman eats first and man gets the leftovers.
The rest of the meals are with Lucy and Ted. The first time they eat together the table is presented as very welcoming, Martha is still hesitant. Ted stands and greets Martha. She is asked about herself and encouraged to eat. The second meal at that table is even more cheery. Ted and Martha share a joke about how dry Lucy’s salad is and even Lucy ends up laughing along with them. The final meal is a total reversal. No one is laughing. Instead of a wide shot that has all three in the same frame, we now have Martha in her own frame on the left side of the table. Lucy and Ted are crowded into the right side in their own frame. Ted and Martha have an angry verbal exchange, Lucy in the middle but on Ted’s side. This meal occurs after Martha overhears Ted and Lucy discussing her mental state. Trust is gone at this moment and the meal is no longer a place where the characters are coming together.
It’s hinted that Martha swam in high school. Lucy asks her if she still swims and that she had such potential. Martha dodges the question, a habit she has consistently with Lucy. Martha also brings up that she didn’t know there was a lake at Lucy’s house, showing there is still some interest in swimming. Later, Ted invites Martha into the water which is when the skinny dipping scene occurs. This is parallel with the later scene, presented without sound, of a POV shot where Martha is swimming naked with other members of the cult (Patrick and Katie not present). The final swimming scene is just before the film’s climax when Martha notices the man watching her from across the shore. She reacts frightened and swims for the dock. Swimming seems to have an association with Martha’s past, simpler times? The nudity doesn’t feel like anything sexual but more an act of pure freedom. It’s never associated with Patrick and his predatory nature. It’s not until the final swimming scene that Martha is portrayed as being in danger. She says she is going swimming one last time before Lucy and Ted take her to the mental health professional where she will likely be put into psychiatric care, her freedom being limited or taken. The tragedy is that swimming, the one place where she is free, is turned on its head when she sees the possible cult member watching.
Katie, the den mother of the cult, is a very complicated and delicately painted character. I believe she is Patrick’s actual wife, we know she has at least one child with him. She seems to be the oldest woman in the cult and does everything without question. When she’s introduced she is very welcoming to Martha, talking about how it takes time for everyone to find their place in the family. She also talks with a sense of doubt that the farm will make itself self-sufficient one day and then their connection with the outside world will be over. Katie’s next appearance is after Martha’s rape. Once again, she seems to doubt what she says about the experience being good for Martha. She even asks, “Do you believe me?” after she gives her spiel. She appears briefly during a gardening scene to tell Martha not to stare as Patrick gets aggressive with Zoe over her smoking in the background. Watts will say something similar with Martha watches Patrick with Sarah. Martha’s gaze is threatening to others, they worry what she might see. Interesting to note, she makes very little eye contact with Lucy and Ted. Patrick never breaks his eye contact with anyone.
Katie oversees Martha’s seduction of Sarah, encouraging her to teach the new recruit. Katie stands over the kitchen table as Martha prepares the drugged drink, never looking at Martha, just staring at the glass. Katie also commits one of the most heinous acts in the film, stabbing the homeowner in the back after the failed break in. She is dispassionate as she commits the act and later in the house, stands stiff with her hands in the water of the sink, seemingly unaware of the blood spattered on her face. The last time we see her is as she and Martha prepare food, their backs to us. Martha sneaks a bite and Katie strikes her across the back of her head, telling her they wait for the men to eat. Lucy is mistakenly called two different names by a disoriented Martha. Once she calls Lucy “Mom” but on another occasion she refers to her as “Katie”. Katie was a mother figure and yet another one who betrays Martha.
After reading some comments by director Sean Durkin about his perspective on Ted, I really wanted to give the character a second look. The first time we see Ted he’s come home from work and talks to Lucy about Martha. He asks questions about how she is and what she has said about where she has been. He seems very upset to hear Martha was staying in the Catskills with a boyfriend. His first meeting with Martha occurs at dinner. He stands up to introduce himself, invites Martha to the table, and encourages her to eat. Later he asks her to join him swimming and invites her to go out on the lake with his boat. Two important scenes occur on that boat.
In the first boat scene we have Martha, Lucy, and Ted. This is the scene where Ted learns that after their mother’s death, Aunt Dora came to live with Martha. Lucy stayed away at college. Ted looks visibly upset hearing this. The second boat scene is just between Ted and Martha. In this scene, Ted reveals he and Lucy are trying to have a child. Martha laughs incredulously at this and Ted inquires why. Martha implies Lucy would make a terrible mother and Ted hints that he’s only having a child because that is what Lucy wants. Ted becomes increasingly angry, not at Martha, but at Lucy’s inability to take action about her sister who is obviously suffering from trauma. It’s easy to mistake Ted for being a stuck up prick, and his tone is harsh in the latter half of the film. But if you listen to what he is actually saying he is right. Lucy is unwilling to show empathy for Martha and Martha needs more than her sister’s offer of a place to stay. Martha’s trust in Ted vanishes when she overhears him arguing with Lucy and referring to Martha as insane. From this point there is friction between the two.
It’s important to point out that Martha abstains from alcohol throughout the film. I gathered she didn’t trust herself or others around her when she drinks. In her boat scene with Ted, she drinks with him, and believe this is a signal that at that moment in time she trusts him. It’s sad that his harsh tone distances the two because I believe he is one of the few characters who genuinely cares what happens to her.
This viewing I decided to focus on the shot composition and eyelines of characters in crucial scenes.
Let’s start with eyelines, particularly Patrick’s gaze. The first time Martha meets Patrick she begins as a passive observer in an interaction between him and Zoe. Martha is center frame, her eyes locked on Patrick, while Zoe and Patrick gaze at each other. When Patrick shifts his attention to Martha so does Zoe. And at the conclusion of the scene, both women are back on Patrick. Patrick is the center of attention entering and leaving the screen. This is another example of his thrall over the cult members, while he may zero in on one particular person all eyes are on him. There are only three moments where eyes are not entirely on him: the two scenes of Martha’s rape he is behind her and when he spies on the young men and women of the cult having group sex in the downstairs room. Sexuality and the gaze of others on Patrick don’t seem to work. He doesn’t want to be seen during sex acts whether they involve him or not.
Eyelines during the three dinner scenes between Martha, Lucy, and Ted also tell a story. In the first meal, Martha is the center, Lucy and Ted flanking her. Ted is focused on Martha while Lucy’s gaze floats around. Martha is dead focused on the table. In the second dinner scene, Ted is centered and flanked by Martha and Lucy. Martha and Ted first share eye contact, Lucy joins them as they bond over how dry the salad is. The third and final dinner scene has Martha in her own frame, Ted and Lucy crowded together. Every one starts by staring down at their plates. Ted is the first to break and engage Martha. Martha engages back but breaks often. Lucy again floats between them. By the end Martha is so worked up she disengages. These three meals map the relationship between these three characters. Ted is consistently trying to communicate, Lucy seems to not know how to handle the situation, and Martha is afraid of communicating fully.
There are lot of well composed shots in this film and lot of playing with lighting and shadow. The farm is mostly seen in dusklight, washed out colors. The target practice scene is so muddy that you can’t make out the characters’ faces in detail. And it serves to illustrate the crossing over into violence being a part of Patrick’s cult. Lucy and Ted’s home begins very bright and beautiful. By the end of the film it’s shot just as murky as the farm. One particular shot on the farm stands out as a triptych of Martha’s journey and relationship with Patrick. The camera is on a tripod and starts on the left position. We see Patrick angrily thrust a pitchfork in the ground and confront Zoe about her smoking. This is in the background with Martha and Katie in the foreground planting in the garden. Martha watches and is told to stop by Katie. Zoe joins them and the camera slowly pivots right as Martha encourages Zoe that she can give up smoking. When the pan right is complete we see the black SUV arriving, Watts and Sarah exit the vehicle. Then its a slow zoom with Katie serving as an anchor point. This is when Martha is told she should teach Sarah about the farm. First Zoe disappears from the frame, then Martha, and finally Watts and Sarah are part of the unfocused background with Katie centered.
With this shot we get a clear view of all the stages a woman goes through in this cult. Zoe has fallen out of favor with Patrick but still wants to please him, Martha is in the transitionary period and still seen as being pulled in, Sarah is completely naive and new, while Katie represents the end of this whole journey. She is resigned to what she is, directing the other women into exploiting each other for Patrick’s pleasure.
I counted eleven shots that open on the back of Martha’s head as she is moving. The camera is following. These scenes typically involve Martha moving from light into darkness or vice versa. The camera also feels like it is trying to keep up with her. These shots are inverted in the film’s final scene which opens with Martha dead center and facing us. I interpret the behind shots as the viewer trying to get into Martha’s head and understand what’s happening. We’re trying to keep up but her memories are so fragmented. What leads to the final transition is when Martha goes for her last swim. She stops and, though she is far away, we can see her gazing at us. The shot is reversed and we see a young man who could be in the cult, we don’t know. He’s sitting and observing her. In some ways, Martha becomes aware that we are observing her. Someone is watching and she panics a little and heads for the shore. That fear does not last though. In the car, when the man runs to the black SUV to apparently follow Martha and her family, she doesn’t show signs of fear. There is a moment of apprehension, of uncertainty, but finally I think we see acceptance. She no longer knows what comes next, her memories have caught up to the present and so she sits and waits for something to happen.
So with my final viewing I went back to the question I had after my first: What happens next to Martha?
The film presents enough to go with either side: Martha is crazy or the cult is hunting down Martha. Every encounter she has with the cult after escaping (noises on the roof, busting the window on the SUV, seeing the man watching her from the rock) she experiences by herself. Her sister didn’t seem to notice the sounds on the roof. A scene with the piercing ring of the phone shakes Martha, but doesn’t phase her sister. Add to this Martha’s floating between her memories and the present, calling Lucy “Katie”, mistaking Ted waking her up for Patrick’s unwanted touching in the bathroom. Martha is severely scarred.
The cult does seem desperate for Martha to “get with the program” and stop being upset about the man Katie killed. She’s reasoned with at first and then Patrick turns violent. They chase after her when she leaves, but Watts lets her go and it doesn’t appear he follows her. The phone call to the farm is a wrinkle because they do call back to Lucy’s house and could have tracked down the address.
But I think the key to what happens in the film is that it doesn’t matter if Martha is being chased or not. In her mind, for all intents and purposes, the cult is pursuing her and they will for the rest of her life. The sexual assault and manipulation she experienced is going to linger. It didn’t help that she was dealing with abandonment issues as result of a deadbeat dad and Lucy’s focus on her own life in the wake of their mother’s death. At the end of the film, Martha has no one.
Sean Durkin has referred to Martha Marcy May Marlene as a horror film. And I tend to agree. The horror is the effect a small number of people can have on your mind for the rest of your life. The horror that you can run as far as you like but your memories stay with you. When she asks Lucy “How far are we from yesterday?” we see that idea full bore. Martha will never outrun yesterday. She will continually slip into the hell of her memories. Maybe she will get some help from where Ted and Marcy are taking her, maybe not. I don’t think we ever learn who this woman really is. The title is a collection of labels she’s been given, names from other people, but none of them tell us who this person is who sits looking into our eyes as the screen goes black.