Ever since No Country for Old Men, the art house can't get enough of ambiguous endings. It's as if the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel opened indie cinema to the possibility that small, challenging films could take things a step further, and have endings that lacked concrete resolution. The latest indie film to try its hand at this trope is T. Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Does it implement the device successfully? Well...let's get to that later.
For all intents and purposes, Martha is a psychological thriller about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), a young woman in her 20s who tries to reconnect with her remaining family after escaping from an abusive cult. Set in the Catskills, it's tempting to label the film This Year's Winter's Bone, although I'd rather not insult Durkin's film with the comparison. At the very least, Durkin and co. can boast that they've made an indie thriller with actual tension, even as it jumps among the present, the past, dreams, and reality.
Whatever flaws there may be in Durkin's film are at least in some way compensated for by the film's biggest asset: young Ms. Olsen. From the opening scenes, Olsen's big eyes let us know that even though we don't know where she is, she wants to get the hell out of there. Durkin's film doesn't provide a lot of answers (how did she get involved in the cult? how did she find them?) but Olsen's performance is a strong enough glue to hold the movie's non-linear structure together. As a writer, Durkin isn't necessarily a master wordsmith, and his attempts to show Martha's struggle to function in society sometimes come off just as awkward to us as they do to other characters in the film. Thankfully, with Olsen (along with Sarah Paulson as her older sister Lucy), these bumps in the writing are generally smoothed out.
As a character study, the film sometimes tends towards the shallow, albeit compellingly so. There seems to be plenty of fertile ground to explore why Martha would have been drawn to Patrick's (John Hawkes) cult, yet it's never really touched on. There are some vague references sprinkled over the dialogue that give hints about Martha and Lucy's past, as well as the early death of their mother. Still, Durkin doesn't explore these avenues as fully as he could (and probably should) have. Thankfully, the film is at least given some balance by the good work from the cast, and Durkin's ability to create an unsettling sense of paranoia. It's not quite on the same level as Take Shelter when all is said and done, but certain scenes have a tension that's almost palpable. Never going back further in time than Martha's first days in the cult may limit the depth of Durkin's character study, but at the very least it provides a compelling, free-form narrative structure. Durkin also never gives easy answers through dialogue, which helps the film maintain the level of mystery that the writer/director is clearly aiming for.
And, despite the occasional, fleeting moments where the film doesn't fully engage, Martha moves along at a generally effective pace, although elements like Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) don't entirely fit. Dancy is fine in his role, but with so much territory between Lucy and Martha to cover, you have to wonder why the script chooses to focus on this three-way relationship alone, without ever delving further into the sisters' past. Aspects like this get the film in some trouble by the time the credits are over, because aside from Martha, no one really feels like much of a rounded character. John Hawkes brings an eerie presence to Patrick, but because the film is so thoroughly oriented around Martha's perception/memory of these characters, it never feels like there's much more to them.
So, finally, we come to the ending. It's vague, to be certain, but does it work? To an extent, yes. It certainly fits in with the narrative's structure and flow, but at the same time, it leaves the film feeling a bit too much like a sensationalized slice-of-life story. And with an ending that fails to make any sort of point (to contrast with, say, No Country's), the ambiguity comes off as slightly forced, leaving the film aimless, rather than satisfyingly open-ended. All that the film ends up saying over the course of two hours is reduced to "readjusting after living in a cult is tough" (shocker!), with nothing else of greater depth or nuance thrown into the mix. That's not to say that the film is ruined by the ending; its strengths certainly outweigh its flaws. However, add these flaws up, and the result is a very good film that could and should have been a great one.