This will be a very brief review because Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film whose plot cannot really be discussed at length as it most certainly ruins the experience. All I knew prior to seeing is that it involved a girl who escapes some sort of cult and returns home. Yet, her past continues to haunt her. The girl in question is called Martha. She disappeared two years ago and now shows up at a diner where she hysterically phones her sister. Lucy, Martha's sister, picks her up and brings her to her and her husband Ted's home. Martha refuses to discuss what happened to her. All Lucy knows is that Martha went to live with her boyfriend in the Catskill Mountains. Through flashbacks, we see Martha being initiated into a cult led by the deceptive Patrick, where women remain subservient to the men and the men are in turn subservient to Patrick. Martha's past is correlated with her present as her behavior at her sister's home comes to mirror some of the abnormal habits she picked up in the Catskill cult. Tension rises between the increasingly-paranoid Martha and the couple. And that's all you need to know.
I was riveted by this movie. I was very interested to see where it was headed. However, 10 minutes past the one hour mark, they pretty much lost some of my previous interest. I suppose the plot could be compared to a wheel. As it completes its first cycle, everything else that follows feels like a rehashing of the same thing. With every act of Marcy's that diverges from the norm, we get a complimentary flashback that explains why and how she picked up that behavior. This technique does become exhausting after a while, especially as it is used all throughout the damn movie. Thankfully, the ambiguous ending sets everything right.
While googling about the ending, I found that a lot of people were dissatisfied with how the film ended. They said that it was a gimmick. If anything, the flashbacks are the gimmick. I could not see the film ending any differently and actually working. If everything had been resolved or found some sort of solace, it would have taken away from the authenticity of the film, an authenticity already hampered by the gimmicky flashbacks. Some films require an ending that makes you think and sets the stage for events that will continue after the screen turns black. With the disjointedness of Martha's memory exhibited through constant flashbacks and psychotic episodes, the film ending at this very point ties in perfectly with the theme of paranoia so prominently featured. We are not sure of what happens after the credits. It's as if Martha has shut down completely, trying to repress her tormented past and to forget. The film is unforgiving in that we, however, are unable to forget, not with the things we've witnessed from the Catskill cult. We in turn are left disjointed. Besides the ending, the acting and cinematography in the film are amazing. Elizabeth Olsen nails her role. I guess while the Olsen twins were in the limelight hobo chic-ing it up, homegirl was cultivating her acting shops (hopefully not in the Catskill). Martha feels so real and so human. Olsen has to show her starting off as a naive girl, turn into a submissive and culpable figure in the cult, and then become a troubled young woman after her escape. Her range is really quite amazing. She is rivaled by John Hawkes who portrays the cult leader Patrick to chilling perfection. And, as mentioned for the cinematography, it's a thing of beauty, especially the shots outdoors on the boat.
Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film I was rooting for, but I ended up a wee bit disappointed by. Nonetheless, it's still a good film and well worth checking out. The story stays with you, as do Elizabeth Olsen's truthful performance. Well, this wasn't so brief after all.