Take Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example. The title didn’t intrigue me at all. In fact, it did nothing but confuse me. But tonight presented an opportunity to see it, and I took it.
Here’s what happened: I went to the Phoenixville Christmas parade tonight with plans to hang around afterwards and see a 9:45 PM showing of the cult horror film, Silent Night, Deadly Night. But when the parade ended much sooner than I thought it would, I found myself at the art house theater with over two hours until show time. Martha Marcy May Marlene [I keep having to check IMdb to make sure I’m getting that title right] was just starting, and I vaguely remembered hearing something positive about it (I think), so I bought a ticket.
And I am so happy I did.
Happy. That’s funny. Because this is not an “enjoyable” movie to watch. Engaging, yes, from start to finish. Riveting, even. In just the first few minutes, without any dialogue, the movie bonds us to the titular protagonist (yes, all four names are hers at various points in the story) and establishes a palpable sense of dread that continues to build and does not let up until the credits roll. (Just watching Elizabeth Olsen sneak out of a weird cult-like farmhouse early one morning and escape into the woods as if her life depended on it is enough to get me to root for her, even without the whys and what-fors.)
Martha Marcy May Marlene gives the viewer very few answers and raises many more questions for each answer you do get. It’s also a bit disorienting, purposefully so. In that way, it’s likely to be dissatisfying for many people. But for me, I don’t need answers or a clear narrative structure as long as a story is emotionally true.
The movie cuts back and forth between Martha’s life leading up to her “escape” and her life immediately following it, blurring the lines between so we don’t always know where and when we are, mirroring the disorientation that she experiences. It has the effect of strengthening the bond between viewer and Martha more and more as the movie unfolds.
All of the characters feel real and human, not contrived to fit a story, but instead the story seems to unfold naturally from real people making real choices. Every character in the film is at times sympathetic (even the “villain”) and detestable (even the “heroine”). These are imperfect characters, all making frequent “mistakes,” and all trying to find a way to live.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
In one scene, Martha accuses her brother-in-law of not living the “right way,” and it’s easy to take her side and rail against the greed and materialism that he’s bought into as a way of life. But her position falls apart in the face of the manipulation and violence inherent to the counter-culture way of life she experienced on that farm.
I had mixed feelings about the murder scene. In a sense it’s playing on a stereotype that all cults are the Manson family. But even so, it feels true in this movie. Somehow inevitable even. And because the film isn’t making a statement about cults, the violence doesn’t feel manipulative.
And as I write this, I think that’s what I liked most about Martha Marcy May Marlene. In direct contrast to the characters within the film, the film itself does not try to manipulate. It does not judge. And perhaps, among the many, many questions that the film raises, the one statement it makes is that there is no “right” way to live. There is something “wrong” with every way to live.
Yes, some wrongs are more obvious than others. The rapes and murder committed by the cult, for example. But it’s not that difficult to imagine the quick tempered brother-in-law, a wealthy Manhattan architect, committing his own wrongs—maybe paying off a building inspector, maybe cheating on his wife.
Ultimately we must question the whole idea of a “way of life.” Each life is a series of choices, unique. Our choices may send us on a trajectory of sorts. But as Martha shows us, we can change that trajectory. Even if it’s confusing or potentially maddening, we can make a new choice.