“Social evils should not be confused with the pursuit of true beauty.”
– David Hamilton

Loss of innocence is an oft-explored theme of filmmakers, whether comedically or dramatically. Martha Marcy May Marlene strikes a unique chord of this theme, a carefully balanced exercise somewhere between the delicacy of The Virgin Suicides and the immediacy of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The sophistication of Sean Durkin’s direction however, blessedly extends the film beyond the corporeal depictions of loss, and deftly weaves a complex psychological portrait of not only loss of innocence, but loss of body, mind, and ultimately, agency.

The landscape of the film could be the setting for a David Hamilton photograph, with its soft lighting and undercurrent of almost voyeuristic, sinister seductiveness. In such a setting, it is quite easy to see how the charismatically lupine cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) draws Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) in to an accepting world which promises unconditional security and a sense of belonging, offering words of support and comfort she never found elsewhere. The narrative is stylistically non-linear, cutting between scenes of Martha’s life within the cult and new attempt at a life with her estranged sister. Palpable tension seeps through every frame, escalating throughout the film in damning synchrony with Martha’s increasing paranoia. The most disturbing aspect for both the character and the audience is that she is perpetually haunted by the past, physical displacement lending no comfort to psychological freedom.

However, the true power of this film is not hinged upon the cult’s literal involvement in Martha’s life. In fact, the ending hinted at something which had been gnawing at me throughout, a larger thematical metaphor for which the cult acted as a proxy – mental illness. It is not so far-fetched, considering Martha’s reactions and behaviour following her escape are highly similar to that of schizotypal personality disorder, some symptoms of which (identified by the highly suspect DSM-IV-TR) include “odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behavior and is inconsistent with subcultural norms,”, “suspiciousness or paranoid ideation”, “lack of close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives”, and “excessive social anxiety that does not diminish with familiarity and tends to be associated with paranoid fears”. Furthermore, her sister’s response to Martha’s clearly troubled disposition is superficial and defeatist, and ultimately giving up (“I don’t know what else I can do for you”). The brilliantly jarring ending is a further testament to the inescapability of mental distress, no matter how past it may be.

Nevertheless, whether one chooses to see the film as an exercise in psychological manipulation, or a trajectory of gradual mental deterioration (note that the two need not be mutually exclusive), Martha Marcy May Marlene is a chilling and unsettling portrait of a girl torn between two lives, and unable to plant in a foot in either.

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