By Zena Wozniak
Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s not just the title that’s hard to say. It’s a movie that’s hard to say anything about after seeing, creepy in the quietest and most patient way possible. The film follows Elizabeth Olsen in her premiere role as Martha, a young woman who runs away from the religious cult she has been living with for the past two years.
Is cult really the right word, though? True, there are obvious ill abuses of power, references to a mysterious “cleansing” and even sexual abuse, but between the soft summer lighting and laid back college-aged characters who tramp around in serene meadows wearing cut-off shorts and plaid shirts, it often appears more like an Urban Outfitters catalogue than anything else.
The idea is that Martha escapes from the commune (let’s call it that for now) and seeks refuge with her older sister, Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson). If Martha comes from an Urban Outfitters catalogue, Lucy is straight from a J. Crew one. She and her husband rent an oversized lakeside vacation home, throw fancy catered parties and have sex in the missionary position. It’s the epitome of the WASP dream and yet nothing is summer-lit about it.
“Don’t be rude,” Lucy scolds Martha in the middle of a heated argument about their past, beckoning her inside for what promises to be an awkwardly posed family dinner. In another scene, Ted can’t explain to Martha why they’re trying to have a baby or if he’s even sure he wants one. Despite all their societal accomplishments, the atmosphere surrounding the clean-cut couple remains cold and rehearsed.
So it is that what should be an escape for Martha becomes an uncomfortable internal struggle over what the “right” way to live is. The film, of course, raises more questions about this dilemma than it answers. We jump back and forth from Martha’s stark reunion with her sister to memories of the shared living space in the country, memories that move from tender and loving to violent and hostile, but are at least all very much alive. Not as much can be said for Lucy’s prim and sensible existence, leaving us with the big question yet again, which is the greater sin: a communal life, or a conventional one?