Overall, I thought this was a pretty stupendous performance from newcomer Olsen. Coming out of the commune, Martha has a confused sense of appropriate behavior, and she constantly breaks social taboos. Some of her more outlandish actions include swimming naked in front of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s fiancé Ted (Hugh Dancy), asking them if the rumor is true that “married people don’t f-ck”, and even climbing into bed with them while they are having sex. It is clear that her time at the commune has fragmented her sense of boundaries.
Martha is generally distant and detached. She calls Lucy in tears, asking for a ride home, but refuses to explain when they are in the car together. She is vaguely impolite, with occasional moments of startling cruelty—“just because we’re sisters doesn’t mean we have to talk about everything that comes into your head”; laughing out loud when Ted tells her he and Lucy are trying to have a baby; and in the final confrontation between the two sisters, telling Lucy that she is going to be a terrible mother. She is a heroine who is at times difficult to root for.
And yet, despite her alienating behavior, Martha is still a deeply sympathetic character. It is a difficult feat to have an audience identify with a character who is sullen, taciturn, and internally focused (for lack of a better example, think Bella from Twilight—utterly unlikeable), and I am so impressed that this film is able to achieve that feat.
I think the key is that while Martha shuts herself off from the other characters, she makes herself vulnerable to us, the viewers. The story cuts back and forth between the present, where Martha is at Lucy and Ted’s summer home in Connecticut, and the past, where she is at the commune. While she does not explain herself to Lucy and Ted, her bizarre actions are explained to us through the troubling flashbacks to which we bear witness. We see Martha’s transformation into Marcy May, a name chosen for her by Patrick (John Hawkes), the commune’s leader. We see Patrick rape her on her first night, and we see another woman from the commune telling her, “I know you feel like something bad just happened, Marcy May. But you have to trust me, it wasn’t bad.” We see her learning that she needs to be “cleansed” of the “toxins” of the outside world, and soon we see her teaching a new commune member the same lessons. We see her internal struggle as the actions of the commune turn violent. In this light, her actions in the present are more understandable and tragic, rather than frustrating.
What makes this whole story believable to me, in the end, is how lost Martha seems. And the cinematography works to emphasize that—whether she is at home with her family or at the commune, the camera often trains closely on her face, with the other characters out of focus and/or partially out of the frame.
The commune is a chance for Martha to find a sense of belonging. Here, she finds her “role” and is valued as someone special. Something I struggled with as I was watching the movie was my wish to be drawn into this commune a little more myself. I found most of the commune members to be off-putting from the beginning, Patrick especially. I wanted to viscerally feel Martha’s attraction to this community. But I think that Martha’s evident need for belonging allowed me to understand why it was happening to her, even if I couldn’t imagine that happening to me.
In general, I think the story unfolds very cleverly. It’s a sensational story—rape, murder, drugs, brainwashing—and while there are certainly terrifying moments, for the most part Durkin tells us the story slowly and patiently. The takes are long, and the dialogue is understated (and refreshingly free of stilted explication). This is a tasteful choice, and Durkin successfully avoids turning Martha’s story into a soap opera.
Because I think that in the end, this isn’t a story about a cult; it’s a story about a person trying to find her place in the world. Even when she is safe with Lucy and Ted, Martha seems lost, getting into a heated argument with Ted about what she will do with her future. She even resorts to calling the commune again on the phone, presumably feeling almost homesick for it. She doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. I think the title is fitting, then—there are so many names that she takes on throughout the film, and the title does not commit to any one of them, suggesting Martha’s own ambivalence about her identity.
The ending is ambiguous, and I am still not sure if I like it. I appreciate that Durkin does not try to wrap up Martha’s whole story into a neat little package, but the film is cut short in a jarring way. I really just think that the last shot of the film is gorgeous, centered on her face with the car following behind. Durkin and Olsen together do such a great job of drawing us into Martha’s perspective, her fear and loneliness.