You Can Take The Girl Out Of The Cult, But...
It's probably quite difficult to make an impression as a performer when you have two elder siblings who have been headlining projects since the age of six, have owned their own self-merchandising corporation since the age of seven, and have a collective worth of over one hundred million dollars. Nevertheless Elizabeth Olsen has found a way, recently being nominated for umpteen awards for her debut film role: the title role in Sean Durkin's Marcy Marlene May MarthaMay Martha Marlene MarcyMarlene Martha May Marlene (oh good grief) Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Olsen plays a young woman who wakes up one morning in a dilapidated rural farm somewhere in America, where she shares a house with a group of other young people. But before anyone else rises, she flees the house and runs into the nearby woods, hiding from her fellows when they pursue her. Contacting her elder sister (Sarah Paulson), she takes refuge at her affluent home, refusing to answer any questions as to what she's been doing for the last two years.
But while she may be finished with her past, her past is not yet finished with her, and memories (or are they dreams?) of her former life persistently trouble her. One question in particular refuses to go away – has she left her recent past as completely behind as she believes? Or is her escape only a temporary respite?
For yes, for the past two years she has been a member of a cult, led by a man named Patrick (a remarkable, deeply creepy performance by John Hawkes). Patrick operates by enticing troubled young people to his farm, where through an insidious combination of brainwashing, drugs, and folk singing he strips them of their former identities and names and renders them almost wholly dependent on and obedient to him.
This would be strong enough material for a movie, but the way in which Marcy Martha Ma- (sod it) Ma Ma Ma Ma handles it is particularly striking: the film has a fragmented narrative, cutting almost imperceptibly between past and present. As a representation of the main character's messed-up psyche, this works very effectively, particular as an illustration of why she finds it so hard to abandon the habits and attitudes she has been indoctrinated with by Patrick.
Although it's certainly not being marketed as such, many critics (even some not living in attics) have commented on the general ambience of Ma Ma Ma Ma, which is not dissimilar to that of a full-on horror movie. Personally it reminded me most of the original version of The Wicker Man, with its uncomfortable clash of ethical codes reflected here in the different values of the cult and the main character's family – and it seemed to me that despite being not at all sympathetic to Patrick or his activities, the film doesn't exactly endorse the outside world either. The lifestyle of the sister and her husband does somehow seem slightly empty, if not outright decadent. There's a queasy moment when you actually understand why Olsen considers going back to the cult, if this is what the alternative is.
But Ma Ma Ma Ma goes further in suggesting that not only are ethics a matter of local convention, but so, in a strange way, is identity. Is the main character Martha, her 'real' name? Or is she Marcy May, the name given to her by Patrick? Does she even know herself? Is this a meaningful distinction? Olsen gives a luminous performance of tremendous nuance, that reveals just enough, and leaves just enough to the viewer to decide.
The film is shot in an unfussy, naturalistic style, with – for the most part – a stripped-down score. It doesn't shy away from the darker elements of the story, but neither does it present them in a sensationalistic way. The story unfolds in a highly intelligent way, with some of the main character's odder behaviour towards her well-meaning family explained by later flashbacks. Perhaps there are a few longeurs towards the end, and perhaps with hindsight the sister and her husband come across as a little slow for not realising sooner that the main character has been severely damaged by her experiences, but then again it only slowly becomes apparent to the audience, and they've had the benefit of the flashbacks!
This is a challenging film in many ways, though never less than rewarding and enjoyable. I imagine the ending in particular will be divisive and the cause of much discussion, because it is extremely ambiguous. I thought it could either be hopeful, with a cautionary note, or alternatively simply very ominous – in the circumstances, either would be very appropriate. My literary advisor, on the other hand, thought it was too pretentious for its own good and made various rude suggestions as to where the director had his head stuck. Here, however, I have to disagree: this is a highly intelligent, finely-crafted film, well-deserving of the accolades lavished both on it and Elizabeth Olsen's performance.