Martha Marcy May Marlene: A Hitchcockian Thriller with a Structure Reminiscent of Memento

The film Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM), directed by Sean Durkin and starring Elizabeth Olsen, is a thriller in the Hitchkockian sense. Its pace and editing create ebbs and flows of “sit on the edge of your seat” tension punctuated by brief climaxes. It has an ending that is unexpected and at the same time entices the audience to consider multiple interpretations of what has just been seen (discussed below). And it uses cross-cut editing to seamlessly move between two separate time frames,  a la Hitchkock, for example the scene in North by Northwest when a couple dangling from Mount Rushmore fall and seamlessly end up in bed on a train.

The structure of the film is creative in ways that remind me of Memento. The story told in Memento was about a character who had a neurological memory deficit. The events portrayed in that film were presented in reverse order, a structure that allowed the audience to get an intuitive feel for what it would be like to try to interpret sensory inputs if you had to do so without having access to memories of what happened earlier (I discuss this issue in more detail elsewhere). Similarly, MMMM is a story about a young woman with a condition psychologists refer to as an Identity Disorder. She struggles to make sense of multiple, incompatible, versions she has of herself, such that she is not sure who she really is. The structure of the film, multiple seamless cross cuttings between two periods in her life, gives the audience an intuitive feeling for what her multiple self (Martha Marcy May Marlene) felt like. Music/sound is used to excellent effect to enhance our feeling of being inside MMMM’s head. We could feel the tension rise and fall as though we were experiencing the emotions inside her head as we viewed the events unfold on the screen.


A second important use of structure was to delineate the psychological stages MMMM passed through as she became identified with the cult she joined. The transitions between states were denoted by the screen going completely black. The first black screen happens just before the first time MMMM “voluntarily” crawled into the bed of the cult leader and allowed herself to be sodomized. The second happens just before she participates in drugging a new recruit to the cult, an act that will allow the recruit to be raped while unconscious by the cult leader. The third is just before she participates in a ritualistic murder performed by the cult during a home invasion. The final potential black screen is near the end of the film while she is swimming in the lake. This last one is ambiguous, the water definitely becomes murky but I am not sure the screen ever went completely black, corresponding to the ambiguity about the final psychological state of MMMM at the end of the film.

In the remainder of this commentary, I want to consider the question of what MMMM’s psychological state was at the end of the film. In the final scene we have an extended shot of her sitting in the back seat of a car while being driven by her sister and brother-in-law to a mental institution where she is supposed to get psychological treatment. What is MMMM’s psychological state as we look into her eyes during that final scene?

I am going to consider 3 possible psychological states. There are no doubt numerous others that one could evaluate, and these 3 are not necessarily completely mutually exclusive. However, I think these three are particularly interesting to examine given the evidence that was presented during earlier scenes in the film.

Psychological State #1: MMMM has a serious mental illness that has caused her to lose her grasp on reality. Her symptoms include both paranoid delusions (she mistakenly thinks cult members are out to get her and perhaps kill her) and hallucinations (she is hearing and seeing things that do not exist). Her symptoms might be of the kind that are typical of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) flashbacks, and/or could be related to a flooding of repressed memories into consciousness as is sometimes reported to happen in adults who were subjected to abuse during childhood. Under this interpretation, the look in her eyes reflects that of an insane person.

Psychological State #2: MMMM is sane, but frightened out of her wits, and for good reason. She witnessed serious crimes being committed, including first-degree murder of an innocent victim by members of her cult. She has now escaped from the cult, but knows the cult members will do everything in their power, including killing her if necessary, to prevent her from telling her story to authorities. Under this interpretation, what we are seeing in the last scene is a “deer in the headlights” look of someone who thinks she is about to be killed.

Psychological State #3: MMMM is a predator working for her pack, the members of her cult. During this last scene she is (regardless of how she came to be that way) angry with the outside world, and the people in it, and everything they stand for, including her sister and brother-in-law. And even though she has had some ambivalent feelings about the actions of her fellow cult members, when push comes to shove she knows her ultimate loyalties have to be to her group. They have asked her to give-up her sister and brother-in-law. She has sized them up, and is now ready to deliver them for the kill.

Lets now analyze a few scenes in the film that provide potential evidence in support of one or more of these three Psychological States.

There are a series of scenes showing how MMMM was indoctrinated into the group. The message instilled in her during this indoctrination was along the lines: I know you have been abandoned all your life; If you join us, we will never abandon you; And we know that you are special, you are a Marcy May, you are a teacher and a leader; But if you live here, you will have to become part of our group, and you can take some time to decide, but you will have to eventually find your role in the group.

An interpretation of these scenes consistent with State #1 would be that the process of undergoing this indoctrination drove MMMM insane. An interpretation consistent with State #2 would be that she was eventually able to resist this indoctrination and break free, but now faces the real possibility that they will find and kill her. The State #3 interpretation is that by the end of the film she has “found her role in the group.”

Next consider the opening scenes that show MMMM escaping from the cult, having a conversation with a cult member who followed her and found her eating in a restaurant, calling her sister on the telephone, and being picked up by her sister. These scenes make it clear that at least for a while during that morning, MMMM’s intent had been to flee and escape from the group. She may have had some ambivalence about doing this, but at least up until the time when she made the phone call, it seems pretty obvious that she remained intent on carrying out this escape. However, three hours elapsed between when she made the phone call and when her sister arrived, and the big unknown left for us to decide is, What happened during that 3 hours? We know that the cult members knew where MMMM was during those 3 hours (they had tracked her to the restaurant). We also know that the cult members knew MMMM was a witness to a cold blooded first-degree murder and that her testimony could potentially result in life-in-prison or even the death penalty for some cult members, including the cult leader. And yet, we see her 3 hours later, apparently unharmed, and waiting quietly for her sister to arrive. Now, I suppose it is theoretically possible that the cult just decided, “Oh what the heck, no problem, we’ll just let her go since she feels that way.” If you accept that as a realistic possibility, it probably also allows you to accept State #1; she escapes unharmed physically, but ends up insane as a result of her experiences. However, I have trouble thinking of a way to make this evidence consistent with State #2. Why would the cult let her get away, and potentially spill her guts out to the police now, but then setup some kind of elaborate scheme to come after her and her family weeks or months later. Perhaps in some silly B-grade movie, a screenwriter would use this kind of plot device, a kind of Friday The 13th type scenario where the villain could have seemingly been killed off long ago, except that would not have allowed the film to keep going on and on and on. But MMMM seems to me to be at least a grade or two above those standards, so I can not see any way to make this evidence consistent with State #2. Another, more realistic, possibility is that what happened during the 3 hour gap was that the cult members found MMMM and “brought her around” before the sister arrived (as the cult leader had done earlier during the bathroom scene after MMMM appeared to be wavering in her solidarity with the group). This possibility would be consistent with State #3.

Some evidence can also perhaps be gleaned from the hug that MMMM gave her sister when she arrived in the car following the desperate phone call. That hug did not strike me as being consistent with State #2; She did not hug her sister as someone might be expected to do if she was frantically relieved to be rescued. The hug was probably consistent with State #1; the minimalist hug of a person with a psychological disorder who really does not like being hugged. However, it is also consistent with State #3; a Judas Kiss hug.

Consider next the scene in which MMMM wets her pants, takes them off and hides them under the mattress in her sister’s guest bedroom. I suppose this scene is probably consistent with all three possible Psychological States, but it is interesting to note its similarity to the cross-cut scene in which a cult member deliberately defiled a salad by spitting in it during a home invasion. Is MMMM perhaps deliberately defiling her sister’s home as part of a ritualistic setup to the upcoming kill?

Consider, finally, all of the aggressive behavior of MMMM towards her sister and brother-in-law. She strips nude in the presence of the brother-in-law, invades the couples private space in the bedroom during marital coitus, kicks the brother-in-law down the stars, informs her potentially pregnant sister that she will be an unfit parent, and gives condescending lectures to the brother-in-law that mock his lifestyle and values. When the brother-in-law has finally had enough, and lectures back, What does MMMM do? She sneaks to the phone and calls the commune. I suppose this set of behaviors is consistent with State #1 – MMMM is simply mentally ill and does and says inappropriate things sometimes. However, I have trouble finding a motivation for that phone call back to the cult that is consistent with an interpretation of State #2 (although the information MMMM received during the phone call, that her friend who had also earlier expressed concerns about the killing is not available to take her call, might reasonably be expected to give rise to State #2 from that point on in the film). But, the most parsimonious explanation for the phone call seems to me to lead to a conclusion of State #3; This is the signal the cult members have been waiting for – time for the kill.

Everyone, of course, has a right to interpret a film any way they wish – it is only a fictional work of art. However, if one wants to make an argument for an interpretation of the film that is most consistent with the evidence presented the film, I would assert that it has to be State #3. We might very well feel some amount of sympathy towards MMMM as a victim because of the events that led her to this final state. The film does not fill in the details of her early life enough for us to know why she initially joined the cult, or what her mental condition was at the time she first entered it, and she was clearly traumatized by what happened to her while she was in the cult. But make no mistake about it, at the point where we peer into MMMM’s eyes in the last scene of the film, what is revealed is a stone eyed predator.

I gave this film a rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Really looking forward to future films by this director/screenwriter.

Ron Boothe

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