Ultimately, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a film about secrets, both those kept between characters, and the ones kept from the audience.
In his debut film, writer and director Sean Durkin presents only the barest of vital contextual information — about the trauma that leads a teenage girl to run away from home, or about the cult-like commune that she joins, forcing emphasis on every individual word and twitch from his breakout star, Elizabeth Olsen, the 22-year-old sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley.
Martha eventually escapes the commune, and out of pure desperation, lands at the home of her estranged sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson (“Serenity,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). There is tension between the two upon Martha’s return; the sisters hadn’t seen each other in years. Before filming began, Paulson, Olsen and Durkin met to establish their backstory, but made a point to never clue the audience in on the past.
“Usually in most movies, there’s a tendency to want to over-explain everything in a way that in life we never do,” she said. “You have all these relationships, especially with people in your family, where’s there’s this weirdness that you can’t explain but you couldn’t even begin to discuss where it started.”
“Martha” follows Olsen’s title character in her first few weeks after fleeing from the commune, jumping back in time to provide snippets of her damaging experience there to explain her creeping onset of paranoia. Those scenes at the farm present a picture of a lost-in-time, sexually hierarchical micro society led by the charismatic Patrick, who is played by John Hawkes, an Oscar nominee last year for his creepy role in “Winter’s Bone.”
“As far as backstory, it’d probably be pretty obvious: he was abused, he was abandoned or he tortured animals, that kind of thing really went out the window,” he said. “If Patrick is a bit of a mystery to the audience, I thought why not make it a bit of a mystery to myself? I always thought it was more interesting if he was just discovered there, as the audience discovers him as this guy in the middle of nowhere and meeting these people with no past and certainly with no future.”
To that end, Hawkes insulated himself against learning much about cult leaders or the history of such breakaway groups in general. He had no desire to play a typical, tyrannical leader and, in fact, tried to bring a certain softness to the role. Early on, he greets Martha affectionately, gives charming philosophical anecdotes and plays a gorgeous song on acoustic guitar, casting a certain spell over the young girl — and the audience.
“From the moment Martha meets him with the audience, if he is obviously the devil incarnate, mustache twirling Svengali the second you meet him, that’s not going to give her much credibility,” he said. “Conversely, if we as an audience can sympathize with her a little bit and can say well I can see why she might have fallen in with these people or I can see why she might have followed that guy, it imbues her with more intelligence.”
In fact, so complete was Hawkes’ devotion to authenticity that he didn’t even see the group as a cult, per se.
“None of us really looked at it that way,” he said. “There’s no kind of kool-aid drinking and wearing the same sneakers and ‘I am Jesus’ kind of stuff at all really. It was just a misguided community to me. On some level I didn’t even look at it as misguided.”
Such is the sign of a good cult leader, defending the damage. Martha, perhaps never a stable girl to begin with, certainly leaves worse for the wear. Between sexual submission disguised as “purifying,” forced labor and witnessing a murder during a house robbery gone awry, she loses sight of what is right and wrong, civilized and barbaric, social and bizarre.
Her recovery is made all the more difficult by her refusal to tell her sister where she was, or what she was doing. Paulson also did not research cults or related subjects; she said she wanted to only react to what Olsen was providing in her behavior, not a subconscious base knowledge of what the character could have gone through. As the older sister with a standard idyllic life — handsome husband, expensive lake house, working to get pregnant — it’s difficult for Lucy to show compassion or patience as Martha fails to recover.
“I think, listen, it’s really hard, if you have a person who has basically dropped off the face of the planet, never contacts you, doesn’t call you, doesn’t seem interested in you and your life at all,” Paulson said, explaining Lucy’s lukewarm behavior. “And when she does finally come home, she refuses to let you in in any way shape or form. And when you try to help her, she just completely pushes you away or has a freakout, and I’m doing the best I can with the information I’m given.”
The same thing can be said for the audience, but just as the minds behind “Martha” intended, it’s trying to piece together the unspoken histories and trauma that give the film its intrigue and emotional punch.