Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Martha Marcy May Marlene Ending, Explained
Released in the year 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the story of how a damaged woman struggles to find the difference between reality and hallucinations after she re-assimilates with her family post her escape an abusive cult. Starring Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in the leading roles, Martha Marcy May Marlene is often considered as one of the most twisted psychological thrillers of all time. The much-acclaimed psychological thriller movie’s timeline ducks and weaves back and forth through two different traumatic periods of Martha's life. Here is a detailed explanation of the film’s ending.
A bottomless sense of dread looms over every single scene of the 2011 thriller-drama ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ that doesn’t let you get comfortable in your seat throughout its entire runtime. Directed by first-timer Sean Durkin and starring Elizabeth Olsen, another first-timer, the movie offers a bare-boned and insightful look at the confusion and trauma experienced immediately after leaving a cult. It can be seen as a continuation of the story from Durkin’s 2010 short film ‘Mary Last Seen’, which chronicles the lead character’s initiation into a cult. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Starting with the simple theory, the anonymous man might be a member of the same cult, who has conspired to bring Martha back or to kill her. The cult could have appointed the man to make sure Martha remains silent about the secrecy of their group. However, Martha’s mental stability at the film’s end proves that she might not be in the best state to reveal any secrets from her past life.
In this theory, Martha might be dealing with a psychological disorder and the anonymous man could be only a hallucination. Due to the experiences she faced in the past, Martha could have got herself tangled in the labyrinth of her own mind. More so, Martha could be an accomplice to the murderer, as she always covers for Kevin and their evil group. However, Martha never realised that she has an acute brain disorder of seeing people who don’t exist.
Both the start and the end of the film happen in transition. After living with them for two years, Martha (Olsen) one day just leaves her small and tight-night community and runs to the nearest town. Although she is followed by a fellow member, named Watts, he, much to her surprise, just tells her to take care of herself and departs. Martha subsequently calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who immediately comes to pick her up. They haven’t spoken to each other in years, and we are never really given an explanation as to why. Lucy drives her to her vacation home in Connecticut three hours away. Martha meets Ted (Hugh Dancy), Lucy’s kind and generous, if albeit stuffy and pretentious successful architect of a husband. And when the audience starts to feel that everything might turn out well, her erratic behavior begins to frustrate both her sister and Ted.
Most of the storytelling took place in this film inside the editing room. By switching back and forth between Martha’s time in the cult and present day, Durkin creates a non-linear narrative that perfectly accentuates her psychological state. She is unwell, and Lucy and Ted, even with their growing indifference, can see that. But they are simply unequipped and unqualified to help her. To be fair to them, they do try to reach out to her, to get her to step beyond the wall that she has built around herself. But all their efforts are met with miserable failures. Ultimately, they conclude that she is too much of a risk to be kept around themselves as they are planning to have a child and decide to institutionalize her.
Martha is the name that Olsen’s character was born with, and it’s the first piece of her identity that Patrick (portrayed brilliantly by John Hawkes) strips away when he renames her Marcy May. Only a handful of films have ever been able to perfectly capture the charming, the well-read, the enigmatic sides of a cult leader, despite those traits being quintessential to guide any group of people to mass delusion. ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ takes time to showcase how charismatic Patrick is, before it exposes us to the other aspects of his character: The rapist, the murderer, and the psychopath.
Coming straight out of his Oscar-nominated outing in ‘Winter’s Bone’, Hawkes gives a riveting performance here. With his quiet and menacing authority, Patrick devours any shred of individuality left in his followers. They lead a communal life established on strict patriarchal codes. Women are only allowed to eat when men are finished doing so. They share everything and waste nothing. The latter is underscored when Watts confronts Martha in the diner and eats off her plate after she says she is done with the food. Even sex is often a communal event, which eventually culminates in Martha’s attempt to join her sister and brother-in-law in bed. “Marlene” is the name that all the girls in the farm use while they are on the phone. This is yet another measure taken by Patrick to erase their separate identities.
Victim Becomes Enabler
As with any real-world cult, communications with the outside world is strictly prohibited there. When Sarah (Julia Garner) is brought into the group, Martha discovers that one of the girls, Zoe (Louisa Krause), is allowed to keep in touch with her father, if only to ask him for money. This is an important juncture in the film. Martha isn’t aware yet, but she is already questioning Patrick’s judgments and is subconsciously forced to answer questions to herself about his hypocrisy. But that doesn’t deter her from what she does next.
In arguably the most disturbing scene in the film, Martha handles Sarah’s initiation into the community. She drugs the younger girl and prepares her for her first time with Patrick, just like someone else prepared her when she joined the group. Durkin put much focus on how Martha dealt with her rape. Her inherent morality keeps telling her that something terrible has been done to her, but she snuffs that voice out because of her desire to belong somewhere. The more time she spends in that community, the more she embraces her life there.