Sean Durkin’s first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, casts a strong spell throughout its 100-minute running time. A psychological, slow-burn thriller that toggles between a young woman’s commune experience gone wrong and the upscale lake house to which she escapes, it boasts a compelling internal logic even as it gently confounds audience expectations and desires. Directorial decisions you might question at first—as in, “Wait, doesn’t this new arrival to a grimy commune/cult look a little overly well-cared for?”— wind up not being mistakes but careful choices. (She looks that way not because this is an unrealistic movie, but because she’s a child of at least moderate luxury.)
Still, when the spell of the movie is broken by virtue of its merely being over, a few questions linger. The most interesting of these isn’t about what happens next but rather about how little we understand of Durkin’s attitudes toward some of his own themes.
That’s not to say the 29-year-old director doesn’t have things going for him—like an intuitive feel for suspense or tech-side collaborators with the chops to make his sub–$1 million budget look considerably more glam. And guts: It was a large wager, staking a debut on a character this opaque. So far, that risk has paid off. Whether at Sundance (where he won Best Director) or at Cannes (where the film notched the Prix de la Jeunesse), the early response has been unambiguously positive.
Except for the French—some of whom have been difficult. Discussing his film’s recent tour through Europe, Durkin remembers: “Some of the French journalists, as well as the other European journalists, really wanted me to say that I believe in the values of the cult before they get manipulated—[that] I believe in sort of this socialist or, like, utopian way of living, more so than the other way [represented by Martha’s family].”
It’s not just the égalité-promoting French who are curious. The issue came up again at Durkin’s post-screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival. There, after being pressed again for his own perspective on Martha’s class allegiances, Durkin said plainly, “There’s no critique here.”
“I just think they wanted me to be like ‘down with capitalism,’” Durkin told me afterward. “They talk a lot about . . . ‘Which side are you on?’ I’m not on either side. It’s not about that for me.” To his credit, Durkin has conceived of Martha as an individual, not a symbol. “It’s not uncommon,” Durkin says of his resource-rich protagonist who falls into a collectivist claque, citing his own pre-script research.
“I wanted someone who wasn’t just a victim,” Durkin says. “I didn’t want an abused girl you know . . . because that’s not as interesting to me. [That] happens obviously: abused and abandoned [people] on their own from a very young age. But I wanted something a bit more down the middle. You’re taking these cues, that there’s some family there—there’s some money there, some sort of safety net. I wanted to make sure that stuff was there, so that you understand that, you know, she made choices at a certain time in her life to live a certain way that she was living.”
Still, none of this precludes us from reading the movie as having an insight or two about contemporary anxieties. This might be one of those moments, per D.H. Lawrence, where we should trust the tale and not its teller. Martha Marcy May Marlene certainly isn’t politically prescriptive, though a film needn’t be that in order to offer some unexpected insights into class realities.
When I suggested that his film’s tension wasn’t solely created by the question of whether Martha would go back (or be dragged back) to the cult, but by the competition between the capitalist grind and (fleeting) romance of communal life, Durkin said he hadn’t thought of that conflict as being part of the overall thrill matrix. “I think that’s really interesting; I never thought about that as being a place of suspense,” Durkin says. “The one thing I’ll speak to,” he says, “and it goes back to the character and never trying to make it too simple, or one way or the other . . . is that there’s absolutely truth to what they’re saying [in the cult] minus the abuse . . . I feel like a part of everyone kinda wants to drop out and run away and, I don’t know, live a simpler life.”