Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene

WARNING – I will try to be vague but if you’re clever viewer, my response to having seen this “Martha, Marc, May, Marlene” will have spoilers…

I saw MMMM this past Thursday night. I had an immediate, visceral reaction of distaste running through my body at the last frame and as the credits rolled..

In the immediate moment and for a few hours afterward I could be no more articulate than that it made me feel “yucky” inside.

Was it the seemingly ambiguous non-ending? While people all around me seemed to have different interpretations of what was happening or about to happen, I actually thought the ending was quite clear even if the director chose to not show us those horrific images about to come. It was a true horror movie ending … in fact, the whole movie could be characterized as an exploitative, horror movie.

On the surface, it’s a serious psychological drama exploring the damage wrought upon the members of a small cult and specifically the title character and protagonist – played by Elizabeth Olsen – of the film. But that movie is really only about half of the film – the flashback half of the film occurring on the collective farm in upstate New York. This half of the film is already harrowing to watch and filled with a constant sense of dread.

John Hawkes plays the cult leader, Patrick. He’s an amazing actor. Superlative. (In fact, ALL of the performances are very good to excellent in the entire movie…. script however is another story.) If you saw Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone” and thought he was a scary dude in that, he’s downright benign, an angel in “…Bone” compared to the alternately charming, manipulative, cruel and violent monster he plays in MMMM.

There is one thing that rings untrue about the scenes on the farm: there is no scene or image which shows the Hawkes’ characters directives on how to interact with anybody from the outside world.

Such information is vital to know because it would very much inform the audience on Olsen’s character’s interactions with her sister and brother-in-law after running away from the cult. That (whatever it is, SHOULD be the default pattern that she’s fighting to break out of. She’s been thoroughly brainwashed after all.

SPOILER in the next paragraph:

But there are also shorter flashback scenes occurring just off the farm in the nearby town, that takes the psychological terror closer to the realm of the Manson Family. While there is a certain logic that this cult could behave in this manner too, it also puts the movie more into the realm of melodrama and horror. And it isn’t really necessary. There’s already enough figurative and literal violence perpetrated upon the cult members, especially the women, to convey the idea that this is a very bad way to organize a group of people.

But it is really the roughly half of the movie happening in the “present”, at the Connecticut vacation home of the protagonists sister, where the exploitative aspect really comes to the fore. I say exploitative not because there is any violence perpetrated (there isn’t) but because of the way the writer/director exploits the audience.

The Olsen character never reveals to her sister that she was living in a cult. That would put her more in a state of self-awareness and shame, i.e. it is conscious volition that leads her to hide these facts… however, the writer/director wants to play it both ways… first she’s traumatized and disassociated… then she’s behaving with her sister in a hostile, alienated way that one can imagine was their relationship 2 years ago – prior to her joining the cult…. then she’s disintergrating into a paranoid, possibly delusional, mess… then she acts as if she doesn’t know what happened to her. Some of this feels organically true but a lot of it feels like effect to keep the audience off-balance and moreover to keep the sister and the brother-in-law in the dark.

And by the way, there has to be something good in the relationship between the two sisters… something at some point in their lives where they were kind to each other. Yet, I can’t recall a physical touch of concern or a touch of gratitude (the Olsen character is being sheltered and protected after all by her older sister) and not a word of gratitude from the Olsen character. She’s opaque to her sister.

SPOILERS
in the next three paragraphs:

Also, it’s illogical that the cult would have let her get away. She’s in a diner. The chief henchman of the cult leader has found her and he inexplicably leaves the diner. This would only make sense if the cult fully expected her to return on her own because of the mind manipulations that had already occurred. And the movie initially shows the cult to be just that – evil but not murderous of human beings. But when that reveal occurs ¾ of the way into the movie, suddenly nothing makes sense.

The Olsen character knows too much. She could tell the police, etc. There’s no way the control freak Hawkes character would allow her to get away. So as I said, all of the Olsen character inconsistencies are necessary to create almost a false tension for the audience, a false mystery (is she or isn’t she crazy, is she or isn’t she seeing things, and so on) but moreover, the older sister and brother-in-law must be kept ignorant for the plot device that they will then be vulnerable to a surprise attack.

And that’s why I said MMMM is a horror film. Horror films are essentially disease films. A disease strikes randomly. It has no moral imperative. A victim of a disease is struck down just by bad luck. Horror personifies the disease into either the hockey mask immortal serial killer or other humanoid or non-humanoid monster. In MMMM, Patrick is the monster aided and abetted by his attendants. So MMMM as well as the innocents with her will be struck down the disease that is Patrick.

The one genre I dislike and almost never see is horror. There’s enough blood and disease in real life… I don’t want to see a more grotesque version of that as entertainment. Art exists to transform the chaos of life. Bad things can still happen to good people, but something about the experience creates meaning and not just random suffering.

One other side note, this is one of the most beautiful films, from an image point of view, that I’ve seen this year. The cinematography is just stunning. But once again, this is a deceitful pleasure. I assume the Writer/Director is making a point about the evil that can lurk beneath a pretty surface. Or hopefully that’s his point. So, that the pretty pictures are not part of the mind f-ck, there just to lull the audience…

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