Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fractured States: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

It was about halfway through the movie, when a scene dissolved yet again into a flashback, into a scene in the spare but unkempt rooms of the isolated farmhouse where commune-cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) keeps his “family,” that I realized, pit in my stomach, just how effectively filmmaker Sean Durkin builds a sense of helpless dread in his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene.  And the dread, while heightened sometimes to an almost unbearable pitch in the commune scenes, is never quite absent from any scene, even those in which the protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), has escaped from the commune, damaged and confused, and is living with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy).   For the film works to immerse us in Martha’s damage, a damage that, while physical, is most insidious at the mental level.  

From the opening scenes, we understand Martha’s disorientation – she has run from the commune and has called her sister for help, but she struggles to tell her sister what she needs; her disjointed sentences and her confusion about place and time indicate just how far she has fallen into some other world, a world that cannot comprehend the ordinary, matter-of-fact questions her sister offers.   We sense that she desperately wants to escape but also is desperately afraid to leave the life in which she has been immersed.  The film’s title indicates this fractured identity: Martha is her birth name – the name her sister calls her; Marcy May is the name she is given by Patrick; Marlene is the name she and the other women all take on if the world outside the commune happens to intrude.  And it is that conflict of identities – that mentally confused state that is the core and one of the biggest strengths of this film, which, on the whole, does not live up to its potential.

While the film effectively places us inside Martha’s disorientation – seamless shifts from past and present and elegant dissolves between Lucy and Ted’s house and the commune life indicate that Martha is increasingly unable to distinguish between time and place, memory and imagination and present – I could not quite understand nor even ultimately sympathize with Martha herself.  We are meant, I realize, not to understand her completely, and Lucy’s experience of Martha’s mute blankness and of Martha’s insistence upon her own health mirrors our own experience with Martha: we cannot see into her fully and understand what, exactly, she is thinking or feeling at every given moment.  But the film does also give us a good deal of her experiences and of her mental state – we see the disturbing life of the commune, the suave presence of Patrick,  his absolute invasion into her physical and mental life – and we are meant to understand or feel with her quite deeply in some ways.  My failure to fully sympathize with her by the end – even if I could still feel the dread and paranoia she experiences – has to do, I believe, with what the story leaves out. 

It is clear that especially the young women of the commune have come there because they have been damaged or neglected in some way in the past; they are vulnerable.  It’s clear we are meant to understand that they give into and even embrace Patrick’s abuses of them because they want to believe he offers them some kind of stability and love that they have not felt before, that he offers some kind of community in which they are made to feel valuable, needed.  We know, when Patrick tells Martha, “But you are special” or “you are my favorite,” he’s said that to all of the women and that each believes he’s said those things only to her.  
But the film gives us no real insight into Martha’s past, no insight that helps us understand exactly why Patrick would hold such sway over the women, Martha in particular.  We know that Martha’s mother died when she was young, that her father was absent, that she lived with a crotchety sort of aunt by herself while her sister Lucy was away.  We know that there is some difficult history between Lucy and Martha, that Lucy feels some guilt over not caring better for her younger sister, that Martha blames Lucy for that lack.  But are these things enough to make Martha so gullible, so open to the life of the commune, which we never see from any kind of idyllic perspective?    

There are just two moments which showed me why Martha might possibly be drawn in: in one scene Martha has just experienced her horribly disturbing initiation into the commune, and she and the woman to whom she’s closest, Zoe, are lying snuggled in the common sleeping area.  Martha is clearly hurt and confused, and Zoe is trying to comfort her; Zoe’s words - her reasons - are patently ridiculous, clearly echoes of the shallow rhetoric that justifies the commune’s life - and Zoe’s words don’t seem to impact Martha much – but when Zoe smiles joyfully at her, snuggles in closer, and presses her nose gently against Martha’s, Martha can only smile joyfully back.  The two are like little girls, close sisters who share a common life, common pains, common loves.  In this moment of companionship, I can see that it was, perhaps, the promise of being truly close to another person, close to a community of people, that Martha wanted – not because she, particularly, wanted it, but because we all, I think, long for close community with others. 

In the other scene, the group is sitting together on the ground, listening to each other play music.  Patrick takes the guitar and sings a song for the group, one, he says, that is for Martha, or rather, for Marcy May.  It is a lovely song, and we can see Martha’s face change and become luminous as he plays.  The song is for her alone, and that song, more than Patrick’s words “you are special,” might convince any unwary person that the community might be a place she can belong, truly, be loved for herself.  Music - song-writing, in its implied intimacy - does, I think, hold a peculiar power. 

But those two scenes in themselves or taken together are not enough for me to understand the why – even a nebulous emotional why – of Martha’s journey, Martha’s seduction.  We don’t know enough about Martha to understand how she could be so deeply naïve and vulnerable, and the commune itself shows nothing of itself that is really idyllic or lovely - the moment with Zoe was the only warmly communal one that I could see.

There is the suggestion that Martha is perhaps fleeing from the shallow materialism of a consumerist society – she explodes in one moment against the wealth of her sister and brother-in-law, berating them for the essential selfishness of their life, and the pair are, indeed, portrayed as being among the rich and privileged who see nothing wrong with living such a luxurious, essentially self-centered life.  But Martha’s explosion seems to be coming more from the persistent remnants of Patrick’s apparent indoctrination (we never see any convincing moments of indoctrination) rather than from any deep and organic beliefs of her own.  And if the film is trying to demonstrate Lucy and Ted’s life as appallingly consumerist so that we might see the appeal of the commune, with its claims to cooperative living, healthy poverty, and sustainability, then it fails.  Lucy and Ted may be rich, but they are not at all unsympathetic characters and their lifestyle, while surely sheltered from the griefs of the have-nots to some extent, is not so excessive as to be despicably extreme. If it is, we don’t see it.  We see only, that they are wealthy and pursuing their own lives, and we see that when Martha comes into it, they disrupt their own easy life out of real care for her.  Ted is, understandably, less sympathetic, but Lucy shows nothing but care for Martha, a desire to disrupt her life for Martha.  Indeed, if I sympathize with anyone in the film, it is Lucy, who wants to reach her sister but doesn’t know how.  

The commune, on the other hand, if we are to imagine it as Martha was seeing it for the first time, seems pretty bleak, whatever its claims to cooperative sustainability.  We jump almost immediately and exclusively into the disturbing and potentially violent life of the commune - Patrick claims Martha's body very early on, and the threat of his physical power hangs over her.  On the farm itself, there is no garden – we see Martha and the others beginning to plant a very bedraggled looking one at one point – there are no farm animals.  The outbuildings appear to have no purpose.  From the outside, what about it might look like some kind of answer?  Where is the appeal?  The appeal, it seems, lies only in Patrick’s rhetoric, which, again, we don’t get much of.  He certainly has a charm and a charisma – and he is played subtly and creepily by the great John Hawkes - and I do not fault the performance.  But those qualities alone don’t seem enough to win over someone not already enmeshed in commune life.  So we are left with Martha alone, that something in her past made her vulnerable enough to embrace the unseen pleasures of the commune and the charm of the brief initial interactions with Patrick.  And I just don’t believe it.  I don’t see the draw of the commune or Martha's need for it, and therefore, Martha’s entire journey, even after she escapes the commune, is problematically difficult to see. 

Even as I cannot fault Hawkes's performance though, I cannot fault any other performance of the film either; everyone is astoundingly good.  If the film’s biggest strength – by way of editing and camera work - is placing me within the fracturing mind of one person, that strength is also dependent on Elizabeth Olsen’s performance.  As much as I do not believe in the character arc for her, I do believe in her.  She embodies her character in each moment – subtly showing us her shifting emotions; as the film moves so frequently back and forth through time, she moves with it, and we know when she is by small and yet powerfully communicative changes in face and body language.   

As strong as the performances are, as deft the camerawork, as beautiful the cinematography, and as carefully unrelenting the mood of dread, I cannot fully embrace this film.  I am happy, generally, to embrace the elliptical, to embrace films that give me hints of things – I prefer a film not to spell out its message.  But I do need to hear the film speaking about something - like Martha Marcy May, herself, the film is blurred in its purpose, fractured.  It does offer me a convincing portrait of a mind that has been invaded, disrupted, but it does not tell me anything convincing about an individual, human journey towards that invasion; it does not tell me anything convincing about a cult-commune; it does not show me why someone might join one; it does not offer a compelling critique of any modern social malaise; it does not offer me a deep portrait of a broken family (something I thought Lucy’s relationship with Martha promised).  In short, I do not know what the film wants to say.  And so, in spite of the skill involved at so many levels, I’m not sure I can say the truly brutal nature of so much of it – especially the brutality of one man against vulnerable women – is worth it.  The brutality is more suggested than explicit, but it is nonetheless painful in the extreme, and I’m not sure why I needed to live through it.   


  1. As soon as I read your review, I went to see if the writer was a woman. Not to say men can't write good female characters, but I was curious. The writer and director is a young man with two writing credits. Perhaps as he matures and his filmography grows, he'll learn to create richer characters. Now, if he had you as a consultant, I know this would have resonated. Beautiful review. Thanks.

  2. Immediately after I watched the film, I found myself wondering if the movie would change in any way if a woman was a part of the screenwriting process or if someone like Mike Leigh was involved. I agree that a man is perfectly capable of writing really well-rounded women (Leigh, of course, is a perfect example), but there may be something to the idea that the film has some problems because Durkin is both male and quite young (he's not long out of film school apparently). And Adam, if you remember on the podcast, was a bit worried about what appeared to be the fetishization of Olson - the long close-ups on her face and body; I was a bit bothered by that, too.

    Still, I appreciate that Durkin chose to make his first feature about a woman; he said, recently, on the The Treatment that he grew up around strong women and he's just always drawn to writing for women, more than men. I have to love that, given the dearth of good roles for women in American film. This film really does demonstrate skilled work - rather astonishing really, for a first feature - and with you, I very much hope that his characters will become richer as he continues to make more films.

  3. I'm curious as to your reaction to Red State, another film about a cult, but without a single character as a focus.

    I'm really looking forward to MMMM. I think it could be an intense experience even with limited character development.

  4. Yes, I'm very curious now about Red State, given your reaction to it! And I'm also eager to hear what you think of this one.

    The cult depicted here. . . hmmmm, I would actually hesitate to even describe it as such because this group, while organized around a bizarre leader-personality, is not what I'd describe as religious. Most cults evidence at least some defined system of belief, however weird, right? Here, vaguely spiritualized ideas seem to be floating about, but they do not seem unified or articulated in any systematic way. It's almost as if they've decided - or been seduced into - leading a particular kind of group life, rather than agreeing together on a particular set of ideas, as espoused by the leader. I suppose Durkin purposefully chose to make the religious aspects hidden, and he wanted to instead focus on Martha's detox (or inability to detox), but the whole thing just seemed less convincing to me without some kind of specific religious ideology. My sense has always been that cult members are drawn in, not just by the personality of the leader (that's, of course, key) but also by the appeal of being privy to a secret, religious kind of knowledge. But that could be just my erroneous impressions of cults. Again, I'll be very curious to hear your informed take!