Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 04:28PM
Ian Simmons in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Cult of a Lifetime

I can't remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in such a bad movie. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the feature debut of star Elizabeth Olsen and writer/director Sean Durkin, and while it is, in parts, one hell of a coming-out party, the film as a whole suffers from the disturbing narrative trend of leaving lots of really important story elements up to the audience to figure out.

I've actually heard defenders express their excitement for pictures that abandon the "tired three-act structure"; if that's your cup of tea, then Martha should prove to be a piping hot cup of Earl Grey. If, however, you prefer movies to be more than pretty, two-hour-long cock-teases, then you'd be better served looking elsewhere.

The best thing about cock-teases--pardon the vulgarity, but it's really the most effective metaphor for what I'm getting at--is that the recipient doesn't know that there won't be a payoff. As presented by Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, the film seduces easily. We meet Martha (Olsen) as she escapes an upstate New York sex cult presided over by a sinewy sleazebag named Patrick (John Hawkes). She stays with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their summer home in Connecticut. Lucy struggles to get Martha to open up about where she'd disappeared to for two years, following the death of their mother--but all she gets are vague comments about a "boyfriend" and lots of weird behavior that suggests she's completely forgotten how to act like a civilized human being.

As Martha recovers in her expansive, lake-view-enhanced new digs, we flash back and forth in time, witnessing her induction into Patrick's twisted family. Moments shift seamlessly between realities; for example, in a scene where we see Martha laying down, it takes a few seconds to determine whether or not she's in a guest bedroom in her sister's house, or on the cult's ceremonial floor, waking from a drug stupor into the shock-state of being raped by her faux patriarch.

As we see more and more of Martha's life on the commune, the sense of dread builds. We know that Patrick and/or his male hit crew of horny, dim-witted subordinates will come looking for their prodigal daughter. And it is a testament to Durkin's skills as a student of horror (official or not) that the movie's dreamier, more languid scenes are punctuated by bursts of really effective, heart-pounding suspense.

Two problems with that: One, the languid scenes are really languid. After the first hour, Martha begins to feel less like a mystery and more like a Lifetime TV movie from the 90s about the dangers of running away with strange men. Indeed, Hawkes is one pair of oversized glasses away from being a parody of David Koresh, and the greater his manipulations, the more I had to wonder if Martha--in her previous life--had ever watched an episode of Maury?

Cuteness aside, one of the film's biggest failings is that it goes against what the audience should expect out of a character who is ostensibly an adult, living in New York, who comes across as sassy--if not worldly--before deciding to live in a farmhouse with people who make the characters on Big Love seem like Real World cast members (maybe Martha and Lucy grew up without cable?). I didn't buy Martha's naivete for a second, especially because she's introduced as being anything but. Sure, her confidence could have been an act, but her personality is never filled in enough to make that assessment.

The second big problem--and I can't scream "Spoiler" loud enough here--is that the violence promises and builds to a climax that never comes. Not an ending--a climax. After weeks of putting up with Martha's weird behavior--such as sneaking into Lucy and Ted's room and lying next to them as they have sex, and laughing at Ted's quaint notions about finding a means of providing for herself (all of which is accompanied by a steadfast refusal to talk about what happened between she and her "boyfriend")--Lucy decides to take Martha to a treatment facility. The morning of their trip into the city, Martha sees Patrick staring at her from across the lake. He follows the family down the road as Martha looks on, panicked. Cut to credits.

I'm sorry, but that Sopranos nonsense doesn't cut it anymore. This upsetting penchant on the part of filmmakers to leave their story resolutions dangling wide open has got to be the lamest gimmick since the return of 3D. Films like Another Earth, The Tree of Life, and even, to an extent, The Rum Diary, cross the line between ambiguity and laziness. Some will say that we don't need to know what happens, that it's so "Hollywood" to insist on stories that make sense in which characters are allowed to complete their arcs. To these clowns, I offer the following piece of advice: never, ever, under any circumstances, complain about plot holes in Michael Bay films.

Yes, I can come up with my own theories as to whether or not Patrick was actually at the lake that day, or if he was a figment of Martha's paranoid mind. I might even imagine an ending where he runs Martha, Lucy, and Ted off the road and puts a bullet through their foreheads. But I didn't buy a ticket to a "Choose Your Own Adventure" movie, just as I don't expect to share a screenwriting nomination with Durkin during awards season. I don't appreciate the kind of ambiguous non-resolution that, based on the evidence presented, is less likely the product of a mad, just-discovered genius than it is the cop-out of a really lucky kid who painted himself into a narrative corner and convinced Fox Searchlight that they had a Sundance darling on their hands.

Don't get me wrong: Martha Marcy May Marlene looks gorgeous and features some strong performances (Olsen proves that she can play everything from bored to screaming-mad-crazy, which is good for her Oscar chances, I suppose, but not for audience empathy), but the movie falls apart in the middle and doesn't even bother crossing the finish line. It's like a cherry '66 Mustang with a wet pizza box where the engine should be: one look under the hood will convince you it's not that great of a car.

Note: Durkin didn't do himself any favors by casting Paulson and Olsen as sisters. We never learn how old they're supposed to be, but in real life, there's a nearly twenty-year gap. I don't know if he'd meant to skew Paulson as younger or Olsen as older, but neither scenario helps explain why their characters are so developmentally arrested.

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