Horror is a broad genre. It wraps its claws around every conceivable genre, twisting and contorting it to make something wholly unique yet, in many cases, incredibly accessible. In many cases, these films transcend every day genre classification, though for the sake of convenience, they’re often lumped into the horror category despite the tone and presentation of the film lending itself far better to drama or, to borrow from the notion of “horror elements,” a dramatic thriller. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of these films.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow, meandering film, transitioning from present day to the titular character’s arrival and time spent at the compound of cult leader Patrick. As she adapts to her new life with her sister and brother-in-law, she becomes increasingly paranoid and unable to fully break free from the lessons learned at the hands of Patrick and fellow cult members.
MMMM spends much of its 100-minute running time making you believe you’re watching a horror film. Martha, played by Elisabeth Olsen, seamlessly moves from accepting her new surroundings to remembering – sometimes fondly, sometimes not – the many “lessons” she learned while in the commune. Through it all, however, she remains intensely paranoid that Patrick and his crew are following her, watching her from afar. Patrick, played by John Hawkes, is charismatic and jovial, yet intensely patriarchal, his actions bordering on the obscene. The performances are commendable, though given the sparse dialogue and misguided tone; it’s hard for them to eclipse good in favor of great.
As time passes, her paranoia grows, with each glimpse into the cult’s life becoming more and more terrifying and thus the possibility of their return all the more real. They’re not just a peaceful cult, their house overflowing with subservient yet eager women and young men; they’re violent and horrifying, providing trite philosophical reassurances for their acts to make them seem far grander, far more important than they really are. As it stands, writer/director Sean Durkin manages to keep the tension steady throughout, but its slow pacing, coupled with its flirtation with horror without making that final jump, manage to make Martha Marcy May Marlene an underwhelming endeavor.
Given the fanfare surrounding the film, one might be inclined to think there would be something in the way of special features. Sadly, the DVD for Martha Marcy May Marlene is bare, with only Sean Durkin’s pre-MMMM short film “Mary Last Seen” available for viewing. Before the short starts, we’re given a bit of background info: The film was an experiment by Durkin who, eager to get back into directing before filming MMMM, wanted to show how a cult can seemingly lure people into their community.
A young couple is embarked on what has been promised by the boyfriend to be an idyllic getaway. Unfortunately for her, he has other plans. At fifteen minutes, the short film doesn’t exactly represent the film Durkin laid out before the short started; while the feature alludes to why wayward young women are drawn to the cult, the short film really does nothing more than depict a boyfriend with ulterior motives. It requires explicit knowledge of the first film to fully make sense of what it’s attempting to convey. The short was made AFTER Martha Marcy May Marlene was written, so as an experiment it’s a worthy endeavor, but as a standalone piece, it’s forgettable.