Although Lucy assumes the burden of guilt for “abandoning” Martha after their mother died while Lucy was away at college, it’s never clear how much of an effort was made to locate Martha during what must have been several intervening years. Asked where she’s been, Martha volunteers only that she’s been living in the Catskills with an ex- boyfriend—a story that may or may not have been true preceding her recruitment into Patrick’s cult. And since Martha never reveals her cult association to Lucy and Ted, they can only remain bewildered by behavior that ranges from surly and anti-social to physically and sexually inappropriate. (When she curls up in their bed while the couple is having sex, we’re supposed to understand that group sex was normal in the cult. (Well, you left, Martha. Didn’t you?) Paulson does a commendable job as Lucy, who continues to be supportive and affectionate despite Martha’s continual rejection and alternate outbursts of pontification and paranoia. Not so much Ted, whose emotional journey from frustration to anger provides the film’s only character development. (Dancy’s performance is right-on.)
Durkin tries hard to make up for the static situation with what are meant to be premonition-like flashbacks into cult life. But he makes us wade through visions of flower-child nirvana before introducing us to the dark side so that we can finally understand what drove Martha away and continues to plague her. Unfortunately, Lucy and Ted don’t get to share that information and, as they drive back to the city with Martha in the back seat, we never know whether the fugitive’s past will catch up with her—and maybe even with them.
‘Martha Marcy May Marlene” opened Friday (Oct. 21) in New York City.