Martha Marcy May Marlene: Movie Analysis by Daniel Ross

Martha Marcy May MerleneA close friend of mine, a psychotherapist, told me when she walked out of the theater after seeing this film she struggled getting her footing.  I too found the film to be unexpectedly disturbing like when you wake up in the middle of the night after hearing a sound and you begin quietly searching the house while your spouse sleeps comfortably in bed.  You feel alone to face what lies in the darkness which you know is nothing, yet your entire body is braced to meet the intruder.

We first see Martha, played perfectly by Elizabeth Olsen,  in the early morning hours stealing down stairs through a room filled with young people who are sleeping on the floor of an old farmhouse.  She flees through the woods to a train station and calls her estranged older sister who she has not seen in a few years.  Her sister and bother-in-law take her into their summer home in Connecticut only a three hour drive from the train station in which Martha was found. One of the brilliant aspects of the film is the disquieting influence each has on the other, Martha arriving from this mysterious life after dropping off the face of the earth for a few years and her sister Lucy and her husband (Ted) living this idyllic life in a summer home in Connecticut.   Martha brings with her to her sister’s home a mixture of experience that is both sedating and disquieting.  Martha and Lucy are talking near the beach and Martha decides to take a swim by taking off all her clothes before diving into the water, while her brother-in-law is in the water close by.  Lucy scolds her and offers her a bathing suit.  Martha accepts her sister’s parenting which suggests there is hope in this dark story. But Lucy and her husband simply do not understand what is lurking behind this behavior that disturbs and excites.   Director Sean Durkin, making his  film debut, skillfully manages to pull us into this seduction while then making us open the door to a secret room that hides Bluebeard’s dead wives.

The story of Bluebeard is a cautionary tale of three sisters who are courted by a wealthy man with a blue beard.  The older two sisters are frightened of his blue beard but the youngest doesn’t mind it and weds him.  Bluebeard comes to his young wife and tells her he must go on a trip and he gives her all the keys to all the rooms in his castle but shows her a small key to a room she must never enter.  She is allowed to enjoy the rest of the house and even invite her family over.  She invites her sisters over who are curious about the small key and play a game to find which room it belongs to. When the room is found the young newlywed opens the door and enters the room to find it filled with blood and the hanging bodies of Bluebeard’s dead wives.  In her horror she drops the key and it becomes stained with blood.  Unexpectedly, Bluebeard returns home and asks for his keys. His wife says she lost them. He knows she is lying and grabs her by the hair and drags her toward the room and tells her he must kill her.  She asks for a quarter of an hour to prepare herself for death and he complies.  With her reprieve she gathers her sisters to watch out for her brothers.  The sisters do not see the brothers yet and then see something in the distance.  Bluebeard yells for his wife at the quarter hour.  She asks her sisters if the brothers are there yet.  Finally, as Bluebeard is climbing the stairs to get his wife the brothers arrive and gallop into the house to kill Bluebeard.

This is the story of the intrapsychic and in many cases a literal predator and how one maiden must confront this nature in her journey of individuation.  It is the youngest sister that is most vulnerable to the predator, perhaps because the older sister is likely to leave home and not look back or in the case of Bluebeard, the older sisters had a sense that Bluebeard was dangerous and rejected his advances. In any case, the older sisters are helpful in finding the secret room and revealing to the youngest the carnage.  In our film, Martha is vulnerable to Patrick’s seductions. Perhaps it was because she had less parenting than her sister before her parents died or perhaps she was at an age in which every child is susceptible to the seduction of someone offering something the child never had.  Patrick gives her the keys to the mansion but we soon learn there is a hidden room in his house. In the Bluebeard story it is the seduction of a carefree life, filled with riches and luxury and leisure and status.  In MMMM it is the seduction of finding the ideal family which Martha longs for after her own family was suddenly broken up.  We know Martha is needing parenting because she allows Lucy  It is the seduction of sacrifice to the clan, a patriarchal clan, a primitive lifestyle embracing our outer nature and one’s inner nature and being told that instinctual nature, predatory nature is good.  On this farm there are no personal possessions; everything is collectively owned. The clothes are drab squelching individuality and self-expression.  The women watch as the men eat first then take their places to get what’s left over.  After a night in which Martha is raped by Patrick after she has been drugged, he sings a song that is chilling in its depiction of his world view.  He sings, “She’s just a picture” while looking at Martha telling her at once she is special while he strips her of her  body and self-hood.  Again the film demonstrates the paradox of seduction and destruction. Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us that Bluebeard was a failed magician.  Charles Manson was a failed musician. Patrick writes songs to lure his prey.  Once seduced there is a systematic severing of old ties, including one’s name.  Martha is discarded for Marcy May,  a name given by Patrick himself.  Marlene is the name used by every girl if anyone from the outside were to ask their name. This protects the family from outside intrusion while reinforcing the egoless structure forced upon these young people.  Martha’s journey is into anonymity, ego destruction and self-lessness as signified by this final meaningless name. As Martha loses her individuality, her ego, she is floating amidst the collective and susceptible to the overpowering and destructive archetypal forces, within which lives the predator.

The predator is very active in our society.  It is the trafficker that lures our 12 year old sisters and daughters into prostitution and pornography.  It begins with the seduction of money or fame or family and once imprisoned the predator whispers what will happen to them if they try to escape, what will happen to those they love if they try to leave.  It is the wife living with the abusive husband who is seduced by his promises of reform, his childish charm until the next time he tries to kill her.  The predator is the killer of newness, new ideas, dreams and hopes for change.  It is precisely at a time in Lucy’s life with her husband that they are trying to have a child.  The predator is constellated when we seek newness.  The predator whispers to us precisely when a new opportunity presents itself, “You’re not good enough…”,  “You’ll fail…”.  Patrick whispers his commands as if there is a remnant of a hissing in his voice.  We understand how children are caught and kept in this trap.  Adults may not fare any better because the archetypal powers are irresistable.

The stain on the key that cannot be removed is the psychic stain that stays forever after seeing what’s inside the secret room.  When one sees what’s in one’s secret room with the parts of ourselves that have been slaughtered it changes us forever. It makes us more aware of the predatory instinct and we can “smell” a predator when he enters a room. It also connects us with the “murdered” parts of ourselves.  We must come to terms with these aspects or they can make us vulnerable and devour us if we deny them.   I recently watched the film Capote,  again.  It is likely Truman Capote got too close to the predator embodied in Perry Smith somewhere in the secret room that ultimately devoured him as manifested in his inability to write and in his alcoholism.

Martha is not strong enough to break completely away from this cult-like family and its seduction.  There is something addictive about it.  It is the core of the mother complex, the devouring addiction to Eden.  For this weakness Martha unknowingly brings the predator to her sister’s home.  Her sister is not prepared for this for she is naïve herself having spent the years since leaving home collecting things and living the American dream.  She hasn’t confronted her own psychic predator. On some level her sister knows this and doubts her ability to be a mother and perhaps feels guilty she abandoned her sister.  Her sister’s psychic predator is whispering to her she will be a bad mother.  Martha catches this vulnerability.  Noone escapes the destructive influence of the predator in this film.  There is a destabilization in the egos of both Lucy and Ted.  They realize they are in over their heads and seek help.

There is enough semblance to the Manson family to conjure up the horror that was collectively experienced  without overdoing it.   As we struggled then to understand the meaninglessness of the murders, we sense the murders in the film are closer to home, perhaps because we are allowed closer proximity to the predator.  We realize with Manson any meaning lies only in the mind of an insane man who spent his life in correctional institutions. But then how do we explain all those who followed him? We could keep our distance from such insanity, such horror that included the murder of a young beautiful mother about to give birth and the ripping of the child from the mother’s womb.  In the film we are welcomed into the family with Martha and into its seduction until the seduction slowly gives way to dread and then to horror.  We see Lucy and Ted’s vulnerability as well, starting out believeing their life surely would be the stability Martha needs.  But noone is immune to the predator.

We are never sure if Martha’s paranoia is based on fact or if the destabilization of her ego consciousness is causing her to be delusional and hallucinate.  We suspect at the end that it is real and both she and her sister and brother-in-law are in danger, if not literally, psychologically. Martha has come to realize there is something wrong with her and is willing to seek help.  She is on her way to salvation or death, the ultimate paradox.  So perhaps it is both, her salvation and death, death of that naïve part of her.

Clarissa Estes in her major work Women Who Run with the Wolves, teaches us that the predator cannot be gotten rid of completely. We can lock him up and keep him contained, we can become wise to him and develop a warrior stance when he is in proximity, but he is always there.  Just as the “family” is following Martha and her family at the end of the film, the predator is always stalking us.  That is what is disturbing about the film.  It conjures up an intrapsychic force within the collective unconscious, one we thought we left behind, but it’s still stalking us.

There is a transformational role for the predator as well.  Nancy Dougherty and Jacqueline West discuss the predator in the context of the psychopathic character structure and points out that in stories and in film the role of the psychopath is transformational for the protagonist. The psychopath is seductive because he is willing to perform what lies inhibited in us, and this is his draw, initially.  He is exciting and manifests an energy that is intoxicating but when his true pathology emerges it allows the protagonist an opportunity to differentiate his or her character from that of the predator (Dougherty and West, 2007).

The secret room within which lies Martha’s dead and forgotten parts of her life, the hopes and dreams and fantasies that we must set aside in order to comply with expectations layed before us by parents and community.  This secret room must be opened wide and explored so a proper burial can take place or those parts that can be are revived.  This is the work Martha needs to do but she needs help.  The traumatized parts of herself need proper love and parenting, perhaps from her sister with some help by a therapist.  The ending suggests that possibility while reminding us the predator and its influence is always close at hand.

Dougherty, N.J., West, J.J.(2007) The Matrix and Meaning Of Character.  New York, New York. Routledge.

Estes, C.P. (1992) Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York, New York. Ballantine Books.