Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review and Analysis of Martha Marcy May Marlene

For brevity's sake, from here on out the film, the story of a woman who escaped from a cult to live with her sister and husband in a beautiful lake house, will be called MMMM.


There are pieces of the film that I felt were brilliant.  I know that many people found the editing distracting, but I thought it was fantastic.  Frankly, how else could the story be told?  If it was told in a chronological fashion, it would give away too much, too soon.   The acting was fantastic, especially Elizabeth Olson, who plays the title role, and John Hawkes, who plays Patrick, the charismatic cult leader .  The fact that they make the commune a personality cult rather than a religious one, makes sense and was a smart move, because it is too easy to make a religious cult leader smarmy or crazy.  This cult was perfect as it displayed both the ideals and the weaknesses.  The sociological critique was also subtle and thoughtful.

For all the wonderful aspects of the film, it still left me a bit empty.  What is the film about, really?  Is it about the family relationships?  If so, it’s pretty depressing, because neither family really accepted MMMM for who she was.  Is it, ultimately, a thriller? If so, it may be the longest start of any thriller, and it isn’t very thrilling for most of the film.  Is the central point a subtle comparison/contrast between “normal” life and life in a radical cult?   This is the most interesting aspect of the film to me, but it seems to be undermined by the end, when the “thriller” aspect of the film takes over.   The interplay between two very different cultures displays the weaknesses of both cultures, but the end undermines the equality and gives all the serious negativity to one side alone—“Well, MMMM’s family may not be great, but at least they aren’t as bad as this.”

Personally, I think I’ll stick with the film as a critique of both society and alternative communities, and forget I ever saw the ending.



Below is the analysis of the film which definitely contains spoilers. 


Exactly what kind of critique is being offered by MMMM?  There are two worlds being presented in the film.  First is the world of the commune, an alternative community which exists on very little cash (they sell crafts in town), and have a peculiar pecking order for authority and sexual relationships.  It is an idealist society based on principles of peace and love and community.  The second world is the “normal” world of jobs and consumerism, privacy and genetic connections.   The world where you keep in touch with family,  a single family for a single home and you don’t say what you really think unless you’re really upset.

Apart from the more sinister aspects of the cult, the film offers a number of critiques of community life.  First of all, the economics of the community simply don’t work.  They are forced to steal to maintain their community of love.  The biggest critique has to be the authoritarianism that seems inherent in such community life.  Someone not only has to have a vision, but the community as a whole seems to be revolved around the Patrick's needs and quirks.  Every woman is brought into the community via a baptism of “date rape”.  The other men in the community seem to have the opportunities for sexual action after the Patrick is done with the most recent woman.   There is a highlighting of the sexual inequality, as the women only eat after the men are finished.  And there is a highly sexualized tone of the community in general, where each woman sees the Patrick as her boyfriend/husband, while the other men can be mocked or disregarded completely. 

But the film also pokes at society at large.  The demands of family seem unreasonable, and they clearly have no idea how to assist someone dealing with PTSD and depression, apart from veiled threats.  The outside world seems very uptight and narrow minded about many aspects of human life, including nudity and what is appropriate to communicate.  And the economics of capitalism, compared with community life, seems wasteful and self-centered.

But all of this critique can be taken with a grain of salt because it is made by a woman who has been clearly traumatized by her brush with community life.  As a person who lives in community, and is a leader of two different styles of alternative living (albeit distinctly Christian ones) I am disappointed that the movie seems to pull punches toward society at large.  The basic idea seems to be: “Sure, our society has weaknesses, but the alternative is worse.”   I would have preferred a stronger statement on the broader culture.

I am also a little uncomfortable at the critique of community living.  I don't think that Patrick's community is, in the film, necessarily representative of all alternative communities.  However, I think that there is a dig at all alternative communities-- while they all may not steal, they are not economically viable.  And they are too idealistic for their own good might be a critique of all communities.  Again, living in community and having visited many different kinds of communities, these critiques might sometimes be correct, but are often not. Certainly an implication of authoritarian leadership in   

One last thing I want to say, which is about the ending.  I don’t know if everyone who watched the film got this, but it seemed like a very subtle way to say that Martha ended up back in the community.  Perhaps a couple people would say, “How do you know this? The ending was pretty vague.”  Yes, visually we are left with the community approaching to attack the car carrying Martha, her sister and her brother in law.  But we are given two more pieces of information.  First of all, the final name in the title is Marlene—a name never mentioned in the film.  It implies that our protagonist is given four names, while only three were mentioned in the film.  And as the credits roll, we are given a song, sung by the cult leader, about Marlene, which means that the cult captured her, gave her another new name and then accepted her as this new person.  This leads to speculation about her family—what happened to the couple?  I can only come up with one conclusion.
Perhaps the ending was obvious to all of you who saw the film.  But while I dislike what it says about the message of the film, it was really well done and gave the final period to the statement:

 Creepiest. Cult. Ever.

28 comments:

  1. 'Marlene' was the name the women in the commune used when answering the phone.

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  2. The name Matlene was mentioned in the movie. that was the name all the women in the cult used when receiving callsfrom the outside world, while the men all used the name Michael.

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  3. Well, thank you, I seemed to have missed that. So why is the final song called "Marlene", sung by Patrick?

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  4. It's the work of a forgotten folk singer named Jackson C. Frank.

    Filmmaker interviewed "Martha Marcy" director Sean Durkin about how he chose "Marcy's Song." It sounds like it was one of those fishing expeditions that turned out greater than could have been expected:

    I had a scene in the script, I just wrote "Patrick plays a song that wins over Martha," it was very simple. But I didn't know what the song was. So a month before shooting I was just searching songs under "Martha," "Marcy May" or "Marlene" at my computer at home. I have a long playlist of names that matches the title of the movie. So the one I absolutely fell in love with was the Jackson Frank song, "Marlene" and it's the song in the end credits. So I bought the album and the song before it is called "Marcy's Song" and I couldn't believe it. Songs back to back on an album recorded in the '60s! I loved "Marcy's Song" and John was really into that part of the script and we gave him the cords and the lyrics and he sort of spent a couple of weeks playing it. I don't think I listened to it until the night before shooting. It's John's own rendition, it's different from the actual recording. It's one of my favorite parts of the movie.

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    1. That is a great story, thanks for sharing.

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  5. the movie makes us ask ourselves... whats going to happen? I think it puts us in her shoes. It left me kind of empty and I too kept waiting for some kind of twist, but in the end it was to make you feel her wondering of: "is he following me? Will he kill me ? Do I go back? will I get away? what is wrong?

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  6. Also, Marlene is the name the women used to answer the phone

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    1. I suppose I should change it in the review, but I was corrected on that. I don't mind leaving my mistakes out for people to see.

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  7. I think the ending is an attempt to show the permanent damage done to Martha's psyche. She will always think the cult is following her. She's a woman shaken to her very core by her horrific experiences with the cult. Existing in the guise of peace and nature loving hippies, the cult is really about violence and the utter debasement of women. Martha is raped, participates in the rape of other women by drugging them - the memory of which makes her wet herself. She will be re-living and trying to parse these experiences the rest of her life, and in this sense the cult will always have her.

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    1. So you think the cult wasn't coming after her? That it was all in her head? That's interesting. I don't know that I see any reason to think that the car being followed and all was just her imagination. But certainly, she was severely traumatized.

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    2. It couldn't be in her head because the sister and husband both saw the guy.

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    3. just because the car/person actually existed doesn't mean it had anything to do with the cult coming after her. Marcy's thoughts and paranoia could leave her thinking this.

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    4. The cult is coming after Martha. She’s not imagining it. While we can't trust that Martha's perceptions are not delusions (because some of them are), we can trust what others see and experience. Key moments are:

      1. When Martha's sister asks her if she's been hearing noises at night from the roof of the lake house. There's no reply from Martha and the sister dismisses her own question so quickly that you hardly notice the question was ever asked. But you do learn that the cult guys have climbed rooftops of other houses before.

      2. When Martha is swimming in the lake and sees a dark-haired man sitting on the opposite shore, watching her. In that moment, you don't know if she's imagining it. But it turns out to be the same man who, at the very end of the movie, runs out onto the road forcing Ted to swerve his car to avoid hitting him. Then Ted curses at the guy. Meanwhile the guy has gotten into his own car and is now following them and Martha is the only one who has noticed (so far) that they are being followed. The guy comes up so close to their car that you wonder if he'll try to run to them off the road. But the movie quickly ends there.

      3. When Martha saw the big black SUV parked in a more remote area of the long driveway up to the lake house. She freaked out, picked up a rock and started damaging the car with it. If that car didn't belong to the cult then it should belong to Ted and Lucy or a guest of theirs. Why are there never any repercussions for Martha damaging someone's car? The only explanation is that it really does belong to the cult. They've been hanging around the lake house a lot, staying hidden. We do know from Martha's flashbacks that they have a black SUV.

      Finally, we know from the flashbacks that she was a witness to the cult breaking into a guy's house and murdering him after he discovered the group robbing him. For that, she either has to die or come back to the group (and stop talking about the incident as if she can't get over it). It’s safe to assume that the murder was what jolted Martha into running away from the cult in the first place.

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    5. I believe it was Martha who asked her sister about the sounds on the roof not the other way around.

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  8. I've read several postings, both with and without comments, about this film. No one ever seems to mention that Patrick only father's boys. This is, of course, not possible. So the most disturbing question I have about the film is, "What happens to the baby girls?" It would seem he disposes of them. It is unlikely they are left at a church door, but rather murdered. Then one must also ask, what happens to the women who mother girls? Yet another disturbing question that has been neglected.

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    1. It is unlikely, but certainly possible for a man to have fathered all of one sex. Gender is determined from the male DNA, and it is possible for a man to have DNA that only reproduces one sex, or heavily leans toward one sex. I know of a large family that has all boys.

      However, in a fictional story, that is an interesting point. If the story doesn't call attention to that, why is it hidden? Is it just another thing to make us consider just how evil this cult could be? Interesting point.

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    2. Another thing - when Martha calls the cult from Lucy and Ted's house, she asks for Zoe and is told she is gone. That seemed to crush her. What happened to Zoe and did that have something to do with Martha? Or are we back to girl babies? Was Zoe 'punished'? Did the phone call lead them to Martha?

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    3. Of course Patrick is murdering the girl babies. He is not the one-in-a-million man who, through incredible statistical coincidence, ends up fathering only boys. The filmmaker does not want you reaching for ridiculous odds. He wants you to know that Patrick is a dangerous lunatic.

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    4. the girl babies were under the white crosses at the farm

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  9. I believe the cult made her believe that they let her go but instead followed her all along from the beginning.

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  10. I don't think the movie does this "critique of community living", as you said. Although it does seem to highly criticizes the dull and insensitive capitalist way of life, I just can't help but feel the intention, in the movie, to throw it's spectators into that limbo the protagonist lives in. The limbo is not the PTSD, I believe PTSD to be just a mere, natural consequence of all. The limbo must be simply by never feeling able to fit in; never feeling like you belong anywhere, specially when you come from a dysfunctional family and have anti-materialistic views of the world.
    And that limbo is exactly what made her such an easy prey for the egomaniac cult leader.

    Sorry about any mistakes, it's not my native language :)

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  11. With this ending you make your own ending. I think thats the idea.

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  12. Nah that looked like the guy from the diner and idt that they ever let her out their sites because she asked her sister how far are they from where they picked her up and she said ABOUT 3 hrs + there's a part in the film where they stabbed that man not because they just got caught stealing but because I think they tried to steal a person because he said so long as SHES fine and I just want my FAMILY to be safe

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  13. The end confused me but I think this: the man in the end -- by the lake and in the street/car -- was not part of the cult and she was not being chased by the cult. I think she was on her way to be taken to get help, and she does get help, but her psyche is completely damaged. She will never be able to let the cult and her cult experiences escape her even though she physically does escape it in the end. I think she hallucinated seeing the guy by the lake, and yes, there was a real man in the street since the couple saw him, but I think it was just a regular man who was trying to get to his car, almost got hit, and went on driving. Every person who appears to be somewhat of a threat she will associate with the cult. So in short: physically she ends up okay and away from the cult, but mentally it will always be a part of her and disturb her everyday life through hallucinations and such.

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    1. I like that interpretation. In a way, I prefer that interpretation than what I think is going on. Someday I'll get that brain transplant and all will be well...

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    2. Julie, I agree with you, no way an up to then unknown cult member would brazenly jump in front of their car for no reason. Just another paranoid delusion caused by PTSD and a growing internalized fear.

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  14. this is a disturbing movie, I thought the person who was stabbed was stabbed by his own wife! it seemed he stood in front of her to protect her, and she didn't necessarily seem to creep up on him. Less disturbing to find out that the assailant was an elder member of the group, Katie, but still f'd up.
    super creepy movie super creepy cult, hope she gets a life in NYC and stays safely away from that creepy j.Crew Cult.

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  15. Horrible film - this has given me a complete Mind F!
    I'm going with Julie's explanation of it all being in her mind because the alternative one is just too awful to contemplate and I prefer my endings happy. (To be fair though this is really clever film-making so huge praise to the film maker for messing with my mind!)

    It could be in her mind: an idiot jay-walking and rushing to get somewhere in his car, becomes a cult member sent to follow, similarly the guy at the lake could be an innocent early morning walker or one of those freaks from the cult; the noise on the roof of pine cones falling becomes the preferred method of cult members to freak out homeowners and steal from them in her mind.

    I wish I hadn't read this comment: AnonymousJanuary 8, 2014 at 6:22 PM, 'cos it kind of makes sense.
    Why would the cult let someone go who is a witness to murder, depravity and infantacide? It makes sense they'd follow from a distance and continue to try to freak her out (get her back or worse).

    But hey ho - I prefer happy, feel-good endings, where evil doesn't triumph, so my ending is that's in her mind, she gets rehabilitated and the FBI go in and blast Patrick back to whichever dark place he came from (Charles Manson's birthplace?), taking that murdering cow Katie with him... Naiive? Sentimental? Oh yeah... but it's better than the Mind F I was left with!

    Oh one other thing, that I don't think has been mentioned. She phoned them up because they have a hold over her and part of her wants to go back. She has been groomed so effectively, her personality, her self esteem completely eradicated so she would see Patrick as some figure of 'love' for her. Her wry half smile, half fear at the end, her refusal to tell her sister what was really going on, her spouting on about being a Leader and a teacher is because Patrick has almost completely reconstructed her. (She still struggles with murder but not enough to come clean and get real help.) Sigh...

    Anyway, I don't like that ending, so I'm going with the FBI - that's the good thing about getting too involved in films, it's easy to make up your own endings :)

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