Martha Marcy May Marlene pits the Catskills Against Connecticut

In terms of scary movies, the big money went to Paranormal Activity 3 this weekend, but the smaller, quieter Martha Marcy May Marlene got better reviews, at least according to Metacritic.

It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison. Martha Marcy May Marlene isn’t your typical scary movie. There’s nothing paranormal about it, and there’s no menacing slasher with a butcher knife picking off teens one by one. Instead, its scares are psychological.

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The title character—played by Elizabeth Olsen, sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen—flees a “collective farm” in the Catskills and takes refuge with her estranged sister at a lake house in Connecticut. I put “collective farm” in quotes because it’s basically a cult, with a charismatic leader played by John Hawkes, even though the movie never really comes out and calls it a cult directly. Living with her sister, Martha can’t tell if what she experienced at the farm was real or imagined, and she feels an overwhelming sense of paranoia that they’re coming after her and doesn’t know if her worries are justified.

Those are basically the main concerns of the film, which toggles back and forth between scenes in the Catskills and in Connecticut. And, really, that’s enough to put together a creepy movie that recalls other paranoia-fueled flicks like Rosemary’s Baby.

But the part that might interest Westchester residents is the way Martha has a hard time reconciling the value systems present in the cult and in her sister’s home. In the Catskills, everything was self-sufficient. The members farmed for their food. They shared clothing. To get the little money they needed, they sold handmade blankets in town. (At least that’s what they told Martha, who they renamed Marcy May, when she arrived.)

John Hawkes photo by Drew Innis © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Olsen photo by Jody Lee Lipes. © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Her sister, however, was married to a status-seeking architect or real-estate developer. The house they lived in was huge—far too huge for two people, Martha tells them—and that was just their weekend house. Martha rattled around the big house, lonely and trapped. She criticizes them for their excess and emphasis on superficiality. “There are other ways to live,” she tells them.

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Even though the movie takes place a little to our north and a little to our east and skips over Westchester entirely, seeing Martha deal with figuring out the “other ways to live” actually reminded me of a lot of Westchester residents. There are those among us who have vegetable gardens, or farms, or buy produce from local farms, in an effort to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on supermarket chains. Etsy shows us that there are groups of us out there who want to make a living (or a few extra dollars) off of our handmade crafts. If you can just eliminate that whole cult thing, Martha’s Catskills existence is a romantic idea that I bet many of us would want aspire to, at least on weekends. Then again, being in the suburbs, there’s still a lot of status-seeking, be it the desire for the big house or the splashy career, that Martha encounters at the lake house in Connecticut. The question the movie asks—which is the better way to live?—is one that many of us probably ask ourselves every day.

Did you see Martha Marcy May Marlene? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.


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