At the start of the movie, our protagonist, Martha, who’s about 20, runs away from a strange cult where she’s been living for the last two years (presumably having run away from a stifling domestic situation before that). She comes to live at the holiday home of her somewhat estranged but caring sister, Lucy, and her husband, Ted. Lucy wants to help Martha, but Martha is in a strange state. You can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of the girl. Martha soon starts going on Lucy and Ted’s nerves something awful, as their manners and values are almost polar opposites to what Martha has been inculcated with at the cult.
The movie episodically keeps shifting between the recent past at the cult and the present at the holiday home, relating some of what has been going on. Everything at the cult happened in a communal setting – even sex – but they’d also chosen to live apart from the rest of society and its laws, meaning that a number of crimes were part of their normal repertoire.
But much remains mysterious – we are never told what the cult is really about, how they recruit their members, or why the members endure the mental and physical conditioning of the place. Martha seems to be so stuck in the cult’s ways that it seems strange why she even ran away in the first place. One could be forgiven for beginning to suspect that she’s still in the service of the cult. The ending provides no resolution.
The title of the movie refers to Martha’s being called “Marcy May” at the cult (because they think it suits her better), and “Marlene” is the cover name that all the women at the cult are answering their single land-line phone in. The guys are all “Michael”.
Apart from the fact that we are never given the whole story, neither in terms of a plot climax or in terms of Martha’s past before she arrived at the cult, the movie is well-constructed, well-acted and generally intense and absorbing. It is certainly the breakthrough movie of Elizabeth Olsen, who delivers a powerful performance that puts her very strongly on the map. Sadly, however, the story fails to be entirely satisfying in a narrative sense, opting instead to be loose and too much in media res. It’s a shame that the story isn’t more meaty, because it might have been a much more memorable experience if there’d been a proper beginning, middle and end.
Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause and others.
Runtime: 102 min.