After being royally snubbed by the Oscar Noms committee, 20th Century Fox’s psychological thriller Marcy Marcy May Marlene limps proudly to Blu-ray this month with its head held high and its scruples untarnished. Marcy May is director Sean Durkin’s first feature, and despite a few rough edges, it’s a compelling and scary film, treating frequently mishandled subject matter with commendable restraint and originality.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young woman from a checkered background who returns home unexpectedly after dropping off the map for nearly two years, phoning her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), from a diner in rural nowhere and plaintively asking to be picked up. Martha appears unbalanced upon arrival, and Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are unsure about how to proceed. Melding Martha’s possibly skewed memories of past events with present chronology, the film tries to piece together the fragments of Martha’s covertly traumatic tenure as a member of a volatile cult, headed by a charismatic songwriter named Patrick (John Hawkes). Meanwhile, Martha struggles to communicate the roots of her anxiety to Lucy and Ted, who become increasingly confused, unreceptive, and hostile toward her, refusing or failing to recognize the earmarks of her abuse.
The lexicon of movies about cults has become pretty familiar, but the hallmark flaw of an otherwise wicked subgenre is its consistent inability to approach the subject with any real restraint or decorum. Ticket to Heaven and Split Image, for example, are both amazing films, but they’re amazing because they’re so ridiculous (especially Split Image, which features powerhouse goofball performances from James Woods, Peter Fonda, and Brian Dennehy). What sinks these movies is their one-dimensional approach to a complicated subject – the cult is always bad, the outside world is always essentially good. There’s also a lurid tendency to focus on indoctrination procedures, and while those scenes certainly exist in Marcy May, the film is less preoccupied with the mechanics of Martha’s seduction than with the emotional dynamics that caused her to join a cult in the first place.
The movie’s split time line does a great job conveying Martha’s disorientation and paranoia, especially as her perceptions about the past and the present begin to slowly bleed together and corrupt one another. More importantly, though, it illustrates the uniform emotional similarities between her home environment and the atmosphere of the place she’s running away from – it starts to feel as if Martha’s location in physical space is irrelevant, like she never left and can never really come back. The mounting sense of excruciating isolation, and the feelings of powerlessness and depersonalization her trajectory evokes, are what make the movie so harrowing.
My only problem with the Blu-ray is that the navigation on the main menu is weird, but that could possibly be my TV – the color changes denoting selections look so subtle that it’s hard to actually tell which option is selected. Other than that, the disc is basically fine, though not very in-depth. I was disappointed that there was no commentary track, and the “Psyche of a Cult” featurette, where a “cult expert” is interviewed about the typical recovery process for former cult members, completely missed the point of the movie. My two favorite things on the disc are a classy music video of John Hawkes performing the acoustic folk ballad “Marcy’s Song” from the film, and a short by Durkin called Mary Last Seen, which Durkin’s notes explain was shot over a weekend on DV in preparation for the feature shoot. The short is creepy and beautiful, although the ending seems abruptly truncated, much like Marcy May itself. In both instances, the choice is bold and intentional, and in the feature it’s actually effective, but the short just feels like it got chopped halfway through.
Marcy May isn’t perfect – the narrative is a little diffuse, even for something so intentionally free-associative, and the cult’s more sensational Manson-esque aspects mostly seem superfluous. All told, though, it’s an extremely strong first feature, and Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is solid and convincing. The Academy should be grossly ashamed of themselves.