Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene Film Starring Elizabeth Olsen Set in Catskills, NY and Connecticut; Questions Ways of Life

Psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene pits fictional cult-living in the Catskills against a life of luxury in Connecticut

In terms of scary movies, the big money went to Paranormal Activity 3 this weekend. But the smaller, quieter Martha Marcy May Marlene got better reviews, at least according to Metacritic.

Martha Marcy May Marlene isn’t your typical scary movie: There’s nothing paranormal about it, and there’s no menacing slasher with a butcher knife picking off teens one by one. Instead, its scares are purely psychological.

The title character — played by Elizabeth Olsen, sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — flees a “collective farm” in the Catskills and takes refuge with her estranged sister at a lake house in Connecticut. (I say “collective farm” because it’s basically a cult, with a charismatic leader played by John Hawkes, even though the movie never really comes out and calls it a cult directly.) Living with her sister, Martha can’t tell if what she experienced at the farm was real or imagined; she feels an overwhelming sense of paranoia that they’re coming after her and doesn’t know if her worries are justified.

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john hawkes as catskills cult leaderPhotograph by Drew Innis © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved

Those are basically the main concerns of the film, which toggles back and forth between scenes in the Catskills and in Connecticut. And, really, that’s enough to put together a creepy movie that recalls other paranoia-fueled flicks like Rosemary’s Baby.

Though half the movie takes place in the Hudson Valley, Valley residents might really relate to the struggle Martha has once she leaves the Catskills. She has a hard time reconciling the value systems present in the cult and in her sister’s home. In the Catskills, everyone is self-sufficient: members farm for their food, and they share clothing. To get the little money they need, they sell handmade blankets in town. (At least that’s what they told Martha, who they renamed Marcy May, when she arrived.)

Her sister, however, is married to a status-seeking architect or real-estate developer. The house they live in is huge — far too huge for two people, Martha tells them — and that was just their weekend house. Martha rattles around the big house, lonely and trapped. She criticizes them for their excess and emphasis on superficiality. “There are other ways to live,” she tells them.

Seeing Martha deal with the “other ways to live” actually reminds me of a lot of Hudson Valley residents. There are those among us who have vegetable gardens or farms, or buy produce from local farms, in an effort to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on supermarket chains. With Hudson Valley Etsy, some of us make a living (or a few extra dollars) off of our handmade crafts. If you eliminate that whole cult thing, Martha’s Catskills existence is a romantic idea that I bet many of us would want aspire to, at least on weekends. Then again, as part of the New York metro area, there’s still a lot of status-seeking, be it the desire for the big house or the splashy career, that Martha encounters at the lake house in Connecticut. The question the movie asks — which is the better way to live? — is one that many of us probably ask ourselves every day.

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Did you see Martha Marcy May Marlene? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

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