Martha Marcy May Marlene expresses the tumultuous interaction between past and present. By interweaving certain images and sounds between flashback (memory) and present reality, it illustrates the nature of our memories, and its significant impact in present existence. We are never entirely in the present; aspects of the past are constantly being projected into our lives, either by our memory of them, how they have altered us, or how we behave — unconsciously acting based on previous experience.
The film begins with incessant hammering, from several distinct sources, at the home of the cult. This hammering sets a tone for the remainder of the film. The disturbing noise of hammering is used several times when Marcy (Elizabeth Olsen) begins to drift into a memory. It’s often used as a sound bridge, with us hearing the hammering before the film image segues into the flashback. It is but one of several means that Durkin implements in order to seamlessly interweave the past and present, while attaching an ominous — haunting, yet not horrifying — tone to the intermingled scenes. In other cases, Durkin has Martha walk into a shroud of darkness and come out into the past, or do something that triggers a memory of similar experience, such as when she swims or when she is helping Lucy cook. The interlacing of such images and sounds illustrate, by aesthetic means, the nature of her present reality, that is being constantly disturbed by these strange, dreamlike memories of a time of trauma and intensity. The way in which past and present interact on film, is reflective of the interaction of past and present within the reality of the mind.
The film is quite refreshing in that it doesn’t portray the cult in a one-dimensional fashion. Typically, in films like this, there is a clear indication of how one should feel. Considering the runaway, one immediately assumes that the cult is evil and abusive, and the people are terrible, with misguided ideals. However, despite the film illustrating the impracticality of their ideals — or should I say Patrick’s (John Hawkes) ideals, since the rest follow him — in modern civilized thought, their ideals share some fundamental insights into the nature of existence.
In particular, the notion of a cleansing, to rid oneself of vices, including one’s connection to the past — which hinders and limits present awareness — in order to make the mind clear and still, live in the moment, be self supportive, and appreciate life as well as death is not an entirely crazy way of thinking. What is crazy, however, is Patrick’s actions. What he believes to be supporting his ideals, which includes rape and murder, are not necessary in preserving his beliefs. The cult is essentially twisted; their core ideals are twisted in such ways to justify their actions. Regardless, as Marcy believes, there is some substance, and insight in Patrick’s vision. It is only when they kill an innocent man for no reason that Marcy is shook and runs away — traumatized, fractured, and haunted by the past. “Death is pure love”, says Patrick. Yes, that’s a beautiful sentiment; however, it doesn’t justify murder. Confusion remains in Marcy’s mind, as she attempts to figure out what is real and what is not, what is true and what is not, and who is she — what does she, and what should she think.
There is a certain sense of emptiness expressed by the figures in the cult. They wear plain clothes, eat only enough to subsist, and work. This is their life; there is nothing else. It’s a simple life, one full of ritual (cleansing, dinnertime, work, etc) which occupies the mind and prevents it from straying. They’re not haunted by the past, despite coming from harsh childhoods; instead, they live in the present. However, they are not, as Patrick wants them to be, fully aware. Only Patrick appears to have reached some level of true awareness. The rest of them appear like zombies — empty, cold, and without personality; they have lost their personal and emotional attachment to the world. Which, in theory, should help them, in a Buddhist sense, reach a state of enlightenment — a state which Patrick claims he has attained and is selflessly helping others (a Bodhisattva if you will) to reach; however, there is no enlightenment in these people’s eyes. They have not reached a higher sense of awareness; they have been misguided; they are empty shells, hollow to the bone.
The greatest part of the entire film is John Hawkes’ Marcy’s Song (See below for a cover by yours truly). Not only is the song itself harrowingly deep, the scene in which Patrick plays the song resonates throughout the film. The lyrics articulate the tone of the film, while the music expresses a bone-chilling energy of emotion. The second verse capitulates the film’s theme in regards to the cult:
It’s a dream for the future
The water for the sand
And the strangeness, is
In close ups, John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen demonstrate why they are some of the most talked about actors today; their expressions throughout the song are utterly captivating. The look on Marcy’s face as she listens to the song, hearing words written about her, is incredibly poignant. If Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance, it will be a travesty. In fact, at this point, I’d like to see her win. I’d also like to see John Hawkes with a supporting actor nomination. He’s the greatest thing about both Winter’s Bone (2010) and this film, in which I think he succeeds even himself.
The film ends as it begins, with little to go on. Just as we are not told what happens to Marcy before joining the cult, we are not told what happens when she goes into town. The home at the lake serves as a middle ground; it’s there to help us, as well as her, realize the truth of the past. As they drive into town, her paranoid thoughts, fueled by haunting memories — her fear of the past — seep into her present, altering the very nature of her reality. It appears that Patrick was wrong. Fear doesn’t inspire true awareness, leading to bliss; it does quite the opposite — fear leads to an overwhelming stimulation of reality; the thing to fear becomes the only thing in one’s mind, leading to an extremely limited sense of awareness — incumbent of more fear. Marcy’s fear skews her reality, compromises her ability to reason, and leads her to paranoia. She will always be trying to escape, or outrun, her past. As visualized by the final shot, the past is behind us, but it’s not gone — it’s part of our present reality. The chase is on.