Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to read reviews of a film before you watch it. Sometimes knowing a film is critically acclaimed, a media darling or the recipient of awards can be the kiss of death for the audience. It can build expectations of what the film is or should be, regardless of what the reality is. And, as it turned out, it was almost a kiss of death for my viewing of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the story of a young woman who decides to leave a cult and returns home to find refuge with her newly wedded sister and her new brother-in-law, whom she’s never met.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a minimalist psychological thriller. It’s about what’s not there: what’s not on the screen, what the characters aren’t saying, what the actors aren’t emoting. Told in flashbacks that can be unclear to the audience, the film slowly reveals some of the horrors that Martha, her birth name, experienced as Marcy, her name within the cult and also, coincidentally, her grandmother’s name, experienced in the cult and at the hand’s of the group’s leader, portrayed creepily by John Hawkes.
Martha’s understandably disturbed and emotionally distraught. Her sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) tries her best to help her but with her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and, meanwhile, Lucy is unaware of what actually happened; Martha merely states she spent the past two years with a boyfriend and finally left him because he was “lying.”
Going into this film, my expectations were high. A critically acclaimed film showing the inner workings of a cult sounding intriguing and interesting. I was curious to see what Olsen’s acting chops. But it’s not until long after the film, once you’ve had time to consider it and digest it, that you actually learn anything. Not to mention the choice of a vague, non-specific, non-ending ending just isn’t a favorite of mine.