Martha Marcy May Marlene is seductive in all the wrong ways. Its low-key rhythms lull us into complacency, tricking us into playing along with its contrived dot-connecting and muted masquerade of profundity. A superficially attractive cast has soft allure that makes the occasional flashes of violence feel jolting, when in fact they are unimaginative, turning up nothing upon reflection. Manipulating an audience by any means available is, in a way, what a movie is supposed to do. While Martha Marcy works is good at getting under the skin, it does so to the exclusion of all else. It’s creepy and emotionally effective, but it has no substance or resonance. It has no ideas.
The movie is about a young woman named Martha (Mary Olsen) who escapes from a cult in upstate New York to crash at the lake house of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Actually, “escapes” might be the wrong word; while the movie makes the audience feel as if Martha might be pursued by her cultmates, there’s every indication in the beginning that she’s essentially free to go. (She’s found by the leader’s right-hand man at a nearby diner, and he does nothing to stop her from fleeing.) Martha makes a half-hearted and difficult attempt to get into the rhythms of her square sister’s life, and the movie cuts back and forth between scenes at the lake house and scenes of life in the cult.
Writer-director Sean Durkin makes connections between the life that Paula and her laughably uptight husband want Martha to lead and the life she had upstate with a gaggle of brainwashed, gauze-draped foxes and scraggly dudes. She may have traded torn denim shorts for waspy summer dresses, but nothing much has changed. The restrictions of an upper class existence, you see, are potentially just as confining as those of an off-the-grid family of young people led by a creep named Patrick (John Hawkes) who systematically rapes all the women.
There’s nothing too problematic or offensive about this suggestion. What’s offensive is Durkin’s insistence that we wouldn’t pick up on it unless he kept underlining it. New members of the cult are drugged into complacency; rich people pound beers on their boats. The women in the cult impose the rules on each other so that Patrick doesn’t have to play the bad guy; Martha’s sister’s materialism is internalized so she doesn’t realize what an unexamined life she leads. In cult life, Martha has to wait until the men have finished eating to sneak as much as a morsel; her sister’s husband freaks out (hilariously) if he has to call the ladies more than once when dinner’s ready. In one “attention audience!” moment, we see a new member of the cult being fed a drugged green concoction before her initiation rape, after which—in the present day at the lake house—Martha turns down a kale smoothie that her sister got for her.
This all might not be such a pain to watch if the idea was more surprising or subversive, or if Durkin wasn’t cutting back and forth between time periods in order to hit his points so bluntly. But the decision to represent the everyday world with an upper class lake house inhabited by two high-strung stereotypes obliterates that potential. Durkin parallels the scary predicament of a microscopic sliver of the population (people in cults) with the stilted existence of a slightly larger sliver of the population (the wealthy). He’s often able to put the camera in the right place for maximum chilliness, at one point revealing not one but two surprises with simple cuts and blocking for a moment that ran shivers up my back for days afterwards. Unfortunately, it’s to no effect. Martha Marcy May Marlene screams at you that it’s an idea movie, and the impact it has at first will make you want to locate the themes or concepts behind the ickiness. But you will come up empty. Martha Marcy wastes not only the time you spent in the theater, but the time you spend trying to sorting it out.