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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

This review was originally published at Good Letters, the Image blog.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tied me in knots. It took me hours to untangle myself.

The title of writer/director Sean Durkin’s first film is hard to say, and hard to remember, for a reason. This is a movie about a woman who can’t remember who she is or what version of herself is true.

She grew up in one world—ours—as Martha. Then she threw herself, body and soul, into another.

This new world’s appeal makes a lot of sense: it’s a “sustainable living” community on a farm in upstate New York. The group’s separatist nature appears to be a reaction against Western indulgence—like the Amish without Christianity. Should seem ideal to many of my Seattle neighbors.

But wait—this commune (this cult, really) is more like “sustainable death” for its women. As they’re conditioned to serve Patrick (John Hawkes), the group’s honey-tongued tyrant, blind devotion leads to a willful surrender of body, will, and conscience. He’s designed this system to please himself, and since the head is rotten, so goes the body.

As the film begins, Martha’s making a run for it. But who will she be now? Only pieces of what was Martha remain. She’s a jumble. She’s shards of broken glass in a plastic bag—dangerous, jagged, seemingly irreparable. Back at the crossroads, should she return to the world she fled in the first place?

Elizabeth Olsen’s turn as Martha reminds me of last year’s breakthrough by Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. Both actresses can persuasively play women whose beauty is matched by fierce intelligence. (I’d have guessed her to be Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sister, not a sibling of the Olsen twins—but enough said about that connection.) She’s unpredictable, volatile, able to swing from timidity to Tyrannosaurus Rex in a heartbeat.

And she convinces us that Martha would give in when Patrick strips her of her name and dubs her “Marcy May.”

No, let me be more precise: Patrick tells Martha that she looks “like a Marcy May.” She’s a type. A unit. A block of clay he can mold into whatever he wants. Making her swoon, he sings, “She’s just a picture.”

Horrifying as it is, Patrick wins Martha’s heart even as he declares that she’s less than human. Martha, desperate for respect, embraces a life of sugar-coated abuse. And Patrick’s only getting started. When he deceives her into believing she’s a community leader, she seizes that compliment as if it’s a lifeline. His next lie? “Fear is the most amazing emotion of all.”

So who, then, is Marlene? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

Meanwhile, Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is content with her own choices. She and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who is comfortable with money and certain luxuries, live in a beautiful lakeside house. Lucy is clearly at home in consumer culture, traditional relationships, comfortable living.

When Martha lashes out at Western affluence, she’s not wrong. And Ted’s unwillingness to examine his materialistic life does seem like a character flaw. But is this film a critique of capitalism? I don’t think so.

Two wrong turns were wide open for Durkin. He could have made Martha’s choice seem black and white—commune evil, family good. That would have made Martha more crazy, less sympathetic. Or he could have been cynical (as I feared) and made Ted and Lucy’s path seem equally dehumanizing.

To his credit, Durkin recognizes problems in Western culture without demonizing Ted and Lucy. Further, he’s right to make it plausible that needy seekers might register in Hotel Patrick because of its “back to basics” doctrine and focus on cooperation.

Thus, as he deftly juxtaposes episodes from the lives of Marcy May and Martha, we can understand why she can’t find a home in either.

Every society has its traps, the film suggests. You’ll suffer in any of them. But they’re not equally corrupt. There’s a clear sign hanging over the road less traveled, and it says “WRONG WAY.”

Lucy and Ted’s world isn’t perfect, but you can be “born again” there. Lucy fights hard to save Martha. As “old-fashioned,” “traditional,” and flawed as our society might be, justice, mercy, and love are possible here.

Durkin looks to be an excellent director of actors, and he’s blessed with a fantastic cast. Paulson and Dancy are surprising choices, but they bring personality, humor, and relief from the otherwise relentless darkness. By contrast, John Hawkes seems an obvious choice for any big-screen devil character—and he’s so good here that he’ll fight typecasting for the rest of his career.

Speaking of the devil — Paradise Lost is coming to big screens soon. Bradley Cooper (yes, the guy from The Hangover and TV’s Alias) plays Lucifer. I’m skeptical. To play a proper Satan, an actor must be a seducer, conveying both cunning and charisma. Most cinematic devils are just bad and loud.

Patrick, on the other hand, is an amazing Satan. He knows that the most persuasive evil is something sweet and beautiful with a worm at the center. He’s a Screwtape —  a master of flattery who appeals to his victims’ pride. He knows that everybody wants to feel important and influential. He makes the path to destruction look the most appealing. He gives us the truest picture of our enemy works —  in relationships, politics, the media, and the marketplace — that moviegoers have seen in a long time.

The cultural parallels are everywhere: Think of advertisements that sell us heart disease on a plate by appealing to our ego. Think of charismatic pastors who build their churches on messages of cultural condemnation instead of the gospel. Think of films that whisper “follow your heart.”

I’m tempted to start a graffiti campaign — “Patrick lives.” And the best way to resist him is to give each other the love we need, because those who can’t find it will take the next best thing.

And for Martha, that has made all the difference.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is an author and a teacher. His books include a cinematic memoir (Through a Screen Darkly, Regal, 2007) and a four-volume fantasy epic (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). For more than 15 years he has lectured at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. His writing on faith and art, recognized by The New Yorker and indieWire, has been published in Christianity Today and Image (where he has been a columnist); and in Books & Culture, Comment, Paste, and more. He's earning a masters in creative writing at SPU. Want to invite him to teach or speak about creative writing or cinema? Email