There is Method in This Madness: Investigating MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
1 January 2012 (Happy New Year)
Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most demanding films of 2011. The film is just over 100 minutes long, but requires innumerable hours of reflection, contemplation, and discussion. Remarkably, there is no single way to digest Martha Marcy May Marlene; the film is infinite because its ambiguity sustains deep investigation and multiple interpretations. During a time when filmmakers practically spoon-feed films to audiences, it is a refreshing challenge to encounter a film as complex as Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Briefly, the film picks up with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) the morning she decides to leave the cult she is involved with. After witnessing a horrific crime, committed by members to the cult, Martha flees. Initially, one of the men from the cult, Watts (Brady Corbet), follows her and tries to take Martha back with him; however, after minimal effort, he lets her go and she reunites with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Although Ted and Lucy live in New York City, they take her to their lake house in Connecticut, where they are on holiday for two weeks. In the days she spends with her family in Connecticut, the audience watches Martha’s mental stability diminish as she flashes back through her experiences in the cult. Her flashbacks are chronological, all leading up to the horrific crime that pushed her to flee. Meanwhile, as Martha is reeling in memories, Lucy and Ted, who know nothing of the cult or where Martha has been for the past few years, struggle with Martha’s erratic and bizarre behavior. In the film’s conclusion, Ted and Lucy decide to admit Martha to a mental hospital. The final scene of the film is, perhaps, one of the most understated and sophisticated climaxes in cinema.
In the last scene, Ted, Lucy, and Martha are in Ted’s car en route to the hospital. As they begin driving, a man (the same man Martha saw watching her swim in the lake in a previous scene) walks right in front of the car. Ted slams on the breaks and the man walks past the car. Ted and Lucy are shaken by the near accident, but Martha, who is seated in the backseat, is clearly the most distressed by the man’s reemergence; although she does not utter a sound, her face reveals sheer panic. As Ted drives on, the man, who is visible through the rear window of Ted’s car, gets into the black SUV parked on the side of the road (the same SUV Martha saw in the woods and smashed the window of), and begins to follow Ted’s car. The credits role.
What becomes evident in this last scene is Martha never escaped the cult. Instead, the cult let her go. By the end, the audience knows how the cult operates. When Martha flashes back to the trauma that pushed her to leave the cult, viewers realize the cult does not make money by selling quilts and blankets, as one woman told Martha upon her entry into their community. The cult makes their money by breaking into expensive homes, murdering the occupants, and stealing. Thus, when Martha fled and Watts followed her, he did not force her to return with him because she was more valuable to the cult with her family, Ted and Lucy. The final scene makes it clear the cult is narrowing in on Ted and Lucy.
What remains a mystery, and is a credit to the film’s ability to sustain ambiguity, is Martha’s involvement in the cult’s plan. Martha’s mental instability makes it impossible to get a definitive read on her. For a large part of the film it is uncertain whether the cult even exists. Martha asks her sister, “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” Martha’s own confusion makes her unreliable. However, as soon as the audience recognizes the man who walks in front of Ted and Lucy’s car in the last scene, a man both Ted and Lucy see for themselves, as the same man who Martha saw watching her in the lake, and gets into the same car Martha broke the window to, it becomes horrifyingly clear Martha’s memories are accurate. Understanding her experience in the cult was real, the question becomes did Martha knowingly led the cult to her family’s home to kill Lucy and Ted, or did she not piece the cult’s plan together until the end?
One of the most supportable interpretation is that Martha wanted to escape the cult and genuinely thought she had succeeded, in large part because Lucy unexpectedly took her to Connecticut, not New York. The day after arriving at the lake house, Martha interrogates her sister about their location, asking, “How far are we?” Lucy responds, “From what?” Martha clarifies, “Yesterday.” Naively, Martha may have hoped everyone was safe from danger in Connecticut and the cult would lose interest if they were unable to find her. Yet, the trauma of the cult continues to make Martha paranoid and fearful. Toward the end of the film, Martha has a breakdown when she thinks the bartender at her sister’s party is a member of the cult. Although it is unclear whether the bartender is actually with the cult, from that moment on Martha realizes the cult is close and will certainly narrow in on Lucy and Ted. She tells Lucy and Ted repeatedly, “We have to leave. We all have to leave.” Seemingly, Martha pieces everything together at the end, but it is too late.
Certainly, this is not the only possible interpretation of Martha Marcy May Marlene. The film’s ambiguity not only confirms other interpretations exist, but also that no one interpretation can ever be correct. While the film is dense and profoundly complicated, at its core Martha Marcy May Marlene is not trying to be a difficult film. Truly, it is not. Although it may seem, at times, overdone or unnecessarily complex—somewhat similar to what Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan did last year—Martha Marcy May Marlene is trying to evoke from the audience the same emotions as its protagonist. Martha is brainwashed, and she cannot decipher reality from imagination. This leaves her feeling disconnected, confused, frustrated, and frightened. These are the same feeling audience members have while viewing Martha Marcy May Marlene. Thus, there is a method to Durkin’s madness.
A very special THANK YOU to Tara Bartram for countless conversations about Martha Marcy May Marlene and the invaluable insight which made this post possible!