Martha Marcy May Marlene (Elizabeth Olsen) has spent two years living on a farm in the Catskills belonging to Patrick (John Hawkes). But it isn't a normal farm as Patrick is some sort of leader of a cult and has clear rules when it comes to the men and women who live there. But after waking up one morning and walking out Martha makes it to a nearby town where she gets into touch with her married sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who comes and picks her up. As Martha attempts to deal with what has happened to her over the past two years Lucy and husband try to deal with a very changed Martha.
If a movie is different does it automatically make it good? If a storyline is powerful does it automatically make it good? These are two questions which frequently spring to mind when I come across a movie which has a style and storyline which is different to the norm and I believe that sometimes people can be blown away by something different because they are tired of the same old same old. That is something which I think may have happened when critics watched "Martha Marcy May Marlene" as it is very good, very different but has one significant flaw which holds it back from being great.
Now story wise "Martha Marcy May Marlene" presents us with a dual narrative as we see how Martha became part of this cult and then we see how things are once she escapes. We get to see aspects of life on the farm as the men eat in silence with the women waiting nervously in the next room waiting for them to finish so that they can then go and eat. There are other things but we also see how the women on the farm end up treated, raped, conditioned and worn down so that they no longer function normally and are for all sense and purpose brainwashed into thinking how things are is normal. We see the effect of this when having escaped Martha does things which her sister is exasperated by, such as swimming naked and putting her feet on the kitchen counters. It is a fascinating and powerful look at a cult like life and the effect it has on an individual, not always 100% convincing in what it presents but still powerful.
What also works is director Sean Durkin's style and he not only does a brilliant job of showing the contrasting lives of Martha on the farm and then at her sister's but also cleverly incorporates flashbacks. There are times when the flashback will blend with the present with Martha sitting in the same position with the same look on her face, just the clothes change to distinguish between the then and now.
But Durkin's style is also deliberately slow and not forthcoming with detail and this is to me the huge flaw which prevents "Martha Marcy May Marlene" from being a great movie as whilst eventually he reveals elements of motive such as why Martha joined the cult he keeps it vague for too long. It means we are left as observers for much of the movie unable to connect with the characters in a way which allows us to understand them. And I don't mean just Martha but also her sister as well as Patrick who has a certain captivating quality about him. In a way it feels unfinished especially with an abrupt ending which for me was very wrong.
Despite the lack of character depth "Martha Marcy May Marlene" does have some very good performances with Elizabeth Olsen putting it all out there as a woman who has changed after two years living in a cult and is naive in so many ways but also mentally conditioned to be frightened. It is a captivating performance and is matched by John Hawkes who has this really creepy authenticity about him as this enigmatic leader of the cult. When Hawkes sits down to sing and play guitar to those who live with him the hypnotic quality of his voice is astonishing and unnerving.
What this all boils down to is that there is much about "Martha Marcy May Marlene" which is impressive, none more so than the acting from both Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. Yet at the same time the lack of depth and motivation is obstructive and stops "Martha Marcy May Marlene" from being a truly great movie, leaving it feeling unfinished.