BY NANCY R. MANDELL
“A rose,” wrote Shakespeare, “by any other name would smell as sweet.”
In a way, the axiom applies to the enigmatic young woman known variously as “Martha, Marcy May Marlene” in the film of that name released Friday in two Manhattan theaters. By the end of its hour-and-forty-one minute running time, we know as little about her as Martha as we do in any of her aliases.
This doesn’t seem to be the fault of Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the infamous Olsen Twins, who makes a much-hyped acting debut in the role of a young woman who escapes from a cult, but cannot escape her past. The blame here appears to belong to writer-director Sean Durkin who won a short film prize at Cannes for his direction of “Mary Last Seen,” a short whose subject matter inspired “Martha.” While it’s clear that Durkin wants us to understand Martha, whose expressions and reactions are the heart of a sensitively photographed film, he has also encouraged a kind of frustrating passivity that robs her of the emotional complexity we need to get under her skin.
The story begins as Martha runs away—in broad daylight—from the rural Catskill commune where she has been renamed Marcy May by Manson-like leader Patrick (John Hawkes—Oscar-nominated for best supporting actor last year in “Winter’s Bone”). Forsaking any claim to realism, she is soon discovered in a nearby village by one of the cult members who—after a half-hearted attempt to get her back on track—simply walks away. (As someone whose family has attempted cult rescue, I can assure you that this is not a common exit scenario.) The ease with which Marcy May leaves becomes even less believable when the flashbacks that will haunt her through the rest of the film eventually reveal some of the cult’s less-than-benign activities.
With no plans and no one else to turn to, Martha repossesses her rightful name and phones her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who, without a moment’s hesitation, offers to pick her up. It’s fortunate that Lucy and her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy)—an architect—have been renting a vacation home in Connecticut only a few hours away.
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.