Olsen is Martha, and as the film begins she sneaks away from a commune she lives in based in the Catskill Mountains. She calls her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes her to her lakeside vacation home in Connecticut. The sisters haven’t spoken in two years, but Olsen reveals nothing of her stay at the commune, instead just saying she was with a boyfriend and broke up.
The film then intercuts between Olsen’s induction and indoctrination into the commune, which is led by the charismatic and just a bit scary John Hawkes. We’re not totally sure of what Hawkes is up to or what his game is, but he seems to snare Olsen by crafting a song about her. This despite her waking up one night to find Hawkes humping her from behind.
In the present, Olsen hangs out in her sister’s house, mostly sleeping, but also displaying that some communal habits die hard, like skinny-dipping in broad daylight or crawling into her sister’s bed while she’s having sex with her husband (Hugh Dancy). All the while she refuses to discuss what happened to her, which I imagine is an understandable psychological response, but also is a convenient plot mechanism.
Of course life on the commune isn’t as wholesome as Olsen imagines. It’s totally patriarchal, as the men are allowed to eat first, and the men seem to have free run sexually (at least Hawkes does). When Olsen realizes they are sort of Manson-Family-lite, she rethinks her position. What starts as burglaries ends in violence, which presumably kick-starts her decision to leave.
Though she does leave, her head still seems to be there. Dancy loses patience with her quickly, and when she accuses him of living his life “wrong” by valuing money and possessions, this while she sleeps under his roof and eats his food, he’s had enough. Olsen makes a critical mistake–she calls her commune, which lets them know where she is.
Olsen is amazingly good, and her performance is mostly subtle. A good deal of it is reflected in her eyes, which express a constant bewilderment at being back in the upper-middle-class. Writer and director Sean Durkin has not given us too much backstory–we see nothing of Olsen before her first day at the commune–but Olsen fills in the gaps with her mannerisms, giving us a portrait of a lost woman.
Hawkes is also very good, despite also having to fill in cracks. I think I was influenced by his equally scary guy in Winter’s Bone. There’s a scene where, while teaching Olsen how to shoot, that we learn that he’s not exactly running a peaceful kibbutz. But I would have liked to see more about what he was up to. Did he have a guiding philosophy, or was he just a sexual predator and low-level criminal?
Much of Durkin’s fingerprints in this film are the frequent cuts between past and present, often done so that the situation is almost identical, whether it be the position Olsen is sitting in or the mood of a scene, such that it can take a moment for the viewer to realize what time period there are in. This can be clever, but ultimately becomes a tedious gimmick.
The ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene (the title refers to the different names Olsen is known by during the film, a suggestion that her identity is not her own) is abrupt and ambiguous. I’m pretty sure I understood what was going on, but as the lights came up I was surrounded by some confused patrons.
My grade for Martha Marcy May Marlene: C+