What’s In a Name? Decoding the Ambiguity in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) looks at fragility of the human mind and how it can be manipulated, in the process contorting personality and identity. It follows a young girl as ideals are imposed on her from conflicting perspectives of consumerist society and counter culture community – ultimately fracturing her sense of self. The following analysis will look at the crisis of identity that is titled in the film, as Martha becomes Marcy May and finally Marlene.


Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young girl who, along with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), had been abandoned by her father after the death of their mother. Seeking refuge and a new family she joins an alternative community in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The film begins two years after this induction as Martha flees the commune to her sister’s scenic lakeside retreat in Connecticut – her personality fragmented by her abusive experience.

The film employs a parallel narrative with an altered chronology that jumps between Martha’s life within the community and the consolation she receives from her sister afterwards. This storytelling device allows the audience to see from the offset, the difference in her character before and after the various traumatic events she has been through, and the different ideals/values imposed by the groups that home her. As the story unfurls, and the horrors that Martha has suffered, witnessed and played a part in are revealed, the structure of the film’s dual narrative eventually reflect the fractured memory of Martha – calling into question the reliability of these flashbacks/memories.

The psychological harm that Martha exhibits through depression and non-responsiveness, as well as reliving the trauma through these flashbacks/memories, is evocative of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once introduced to the commune’s charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who instantly changes her name – preferring Marcy May – he puts her through a trial of psychologically damaging torment that is naturalised by the other members of the group. The dynamic of the 20 or so members of this ‘new family’ is extremely reminiscent of the community formed by Charles Manson who went on to commit, among others, the renowned Tate murders.

Manson used a number of techniques to create his cult of followers that are echoed in the character of Patrick. He would recruit young impressionable girls who had left home and had no family, and convince them of his own outspoken worldview in a process of re-identification that would often begin with renaming. Whilst the film is not focussed primarily on Patrick, his influence on the group is undoubted, which makes itself apparent in the beliefs and codes they live by.

The film offers criticism of this community as being completely psychologically controlling and pervasive with beliefs that are hypocritical and deluded despite some appearing to be formed from sincere reasoning. So while they wish to live self-sufficiently in order to avoid the inevitable economic crisis of living ‘unnaturally’, they are seen to be far from independent – reliant on being given money from the original families of its members or indeed stealing it from the wealthy inhabitants that neighbour their farm.

One of the first notable perversions in their societal norms is in the blatant sexist order. The women must wait for the males to finish eating before they themselves can eat. Sex becomes involuntary as rape becomes accepted commonplace. The ritualistic introduction to the group actually consists of being drugged and raped by Patrick, being led there and consoled by one of the sisters; later told to appreciate the ‘cleansing’ act and look back on it fondly. Charles Manson had also engrained similar values into his community believing that you should ‘look to nature for an understanding of balance between male and female’ and that there should resultantly be ‘complete submission’.

Although there are few religious signifiers – the cross that can be glimpsed in the field of the barn for example – the film largely avoids making overt references to religion though the quasi-religious implications are plentiful.

The activities carried out on the farm are natural and with the goal of productivity or as Manson had stated for his own family ‘back to the horses’. Another direct relation between the families both on and off-screen is in the practice of marksmanship. In the woods, Patrick calmly teaches Martha/Marcy May how to shoot a gun and tells her to trial her newfound skill on a cat or one of her brothers in the commune.


As the cult-like behaviour exacerbates, more ungrounded belief is presented to Martha. She is told to recognise death as the most beautiful part of life – ‘Dead or alive you exist in parallel time…Death is pure love’. Once again emulating Manson’s teachings, she is told to appreciate the feeling of fear. This appears to be the first time that the ideals of the group do not convince Martha, having been preached to after witnessing a murder in one of their unsuccessful burglaries. Eventually confronted by Patrick about her seeming doubt and disbelief, Martha then flees upstate and phones her sister for the first time in these two years, marking the crossover with the beginning of the film. As she walks out the door, the newest member to the group stands in the window, a reflection of herself as she begins the cycle through broken identities.

Now in a spacious weekend home with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), away from the psychological torment, Martha now begins to suffer through reflection. This process is intensified through exposure to another value system held by the married couple that seems to be largely shaped by a less extreme materialism.

Lucy constantly exercises a shallow sense of order and preservation within the manor, and reinforces social taboos of privacy and reservedness: dumbfounded by Martha’s audacity to swim naked in the lake. Their position of wealth is later revealed to induce stress in Ted who fears that the bank will seize his possessions unless he is able to complete a business deal – resonating with a seemingly outlandish theory of the commune. Despite this apparent luxury Ted demonstrates that this lifestyle is invasive and demanding, his disconnection with Martha is brought about by a frustration with wanting to escape – “I get two weeks to try and relax”.

This overwhelming addition of ideals that Martha had removed herself from two years earlier, serves to alienate her further: she is shown to be vacuous and non-responsive – the damage of her experience irreparable. And although the couple try to engage with and comfort Martha, they lack an emotional sensitivity that she desperately craves. The scene which best encompasses the predatorial dominance of the cult and the emotionally unreachable family is when Martha is seen lying on the bedroom floor where she urinates herself in one of her sisters dresses. Having allowed the commune to alter her mindset, she is now followed by a predacious fear and paranoia that affects her even in solitude. When Martha notices what had happened she removes the dress, revealing her bruised legs, and hides it beneath her mattress. She is unable to approach her sister about the issues that are dawning on her, and once more, she is confronted with the materialist blockade of emotion as she spoils an item of clothing belonging to Lucy.

Parallels are created between the two groups, serving to reveal the similarity in their levels of imposition. Both decide on Martha’s appearance and expect her to eat at a particular time. The imposing threat of the commune is shown to linger in the behaviour of Martha around certain images that she associates with them. She looks to Ted before eating her food and turns away the kale shake offered by Lucy in favour of the pineapple-orange, perhaps for its likeness to the concoction that was made before her initiatory rape. Scared and conditioned to embrace sexuality, Martha finds solace in her sister’s room whilst she has having sexual intercourse with Ted. They both react with shock and berate her for her intrusion and when asked if she knows why it is strange, she tellingly words her response “It’s private and not normal”. There is a seeming ellipsis after this answer intended to infer that her behaviour is not normal, although taken as a statement it restates the sexual beliefs of the cult.

The names that the protagonist adopts throughout the film are a significant indication of her broken identity. Martha is the girl that existed before the film – her name invokes a sense of biological connection – of the family that had brought her into the world and since abandoned her. Marcy May, the name insisted on by Patrick, marks the beginning of a re-identification with a new family as she seeks independence and acquires a new set of, albeit distorted, values. A corrupt idealism harboured temporarily by an idyllic character. Patrick sings of this unattainable personality through the lyrics of Jackson C. Frank in ‘Marcy’s Song’: “She’s just a picture that’s all”, going on to comment on her impermanent mental state as a picture that has “faded in the sun”. Later a polaroid photograph is taken of her whilst she is out on the water, echoing the imagery of Marcy’s song and employing another motif of water. As with the constant use of glass, water becomes another symbol of reflection, or perhaps refraction as her image is often broken or distorted.

Reflecting the appropriated lyrics of Jackson C. Frank, Martha is often framed through a pane of glass – in this case looking as a picture on the wall.

Avoiding the trite symbolism of mirrors and reflections to represent broken identity throughout, MMMM carefully times a final confrontation with Mike (who she must presume to be a ‘Michael Lewis’) to look as though Martha is challenging her fractured self.

Marlene is the name that the females of the commune use when talking on the phone to outsiders, the male name being Michael. Marlene is a communal name that consists of no respective personality – just an empty identity to be acquired when necessary. Void of personal expression and a product of social creation – this is the one that best resembles Martha after cycling through the ruptured parental bond and abusive cult. Marlene is the used shell of a woman who returns to Lucy in the opening of the film and subsequently is afflicted by delusions that culminate in the thriller-esque, open ending. The fallibility of Martha’s perception is implied at two particular points in the film. The element of doubt is introduced when she asks Lucy: “Ever get that feeling when you can’t tell if something is a memory or a dream”. The second confirms that she is reliving the memories of trauma when –  after cutting from a flashback/memory of Katy hitting Marcy May and her apologising – Lucy asks “Who’s Katy?”. She is projecting her abuse into her current environment – as with the figure sitting across the water and the car that is glimpsed in the final moments.The threat of the cult can be explained as a product of paranoia when noting the song that plays over the credits: ‘Marlene’ by Jackson C. Frank. The final M in the title who suffers the toils of an illusive grasp of reality brought on by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One comment

  1. I found this blog post after watching the movie on HBO this month. I liked your interpretation. Here is mine. First, I must say this is my first online posting for anything: this movie is the best and most stimulating I have seen in years, and I am glad people are writing about it. I think it is very Hitchcock-influenced horror movie, with the added benefits of modern techniques and sensibilities in movie making. It is the Hitchcock aspect that is making us all become sleuths to ‘solve’ the murder mystery. That becomes one of the enduring pleasures of the movie, as well as its modern skillful composition of a frightening phenomenon. I believe Martha did not leave the commune ‘on a mission’. My theory is that Patrick did not have as strong a grip on her as he thought. Because her indoctrination was not complete (see below where Patrick tells her she hasn’t learned the way to connection yet), the murder becomes the driving force to leave. Patrick did not call out, but the blond one with the truck did when she left. He didn’t bring her back I think because he assumed she would come back on her own. In the phone call to her sister she says “I can’t be gone this long’, meaning she is still in doubt whether she will actually leave or not. Back to my theory: The second sex scene with Patrick shows that she now is not horrified anymore (like the first scene), but also not ‘enthralled’ with Patrick. Patrick can sense this: you can see this by the almost frustrated determined look in his eyes and movements, as if he is thinking “why am I not getting through”. The orgy scene shows that Marcy can indeed enjoy sex. Patrick see’s this, then his eyes move away in thought. We connect the two scenes and realize that Patrick does not have as much sway over Marcy May as the others, for instance Katie and Zoe. This is shown in the shooting scene, where Patrick again is not able to convince Marcy May to shoot the cat, but Zoe does without bidding. The humiliation of the son is almost an added benefit to the scene, a way to show how the men are kept in line in the commune (or manipulated until participation in murder is highly desired as a way to show worth). Martha pees in her sleep during the remembrance/dream/flashback of her part in the rape of Sally, a physical but still passive effort to ‘let go’ that she is immediately ashamed of and hides (whether because she still cant consciously come to terms with her compliance or is afraid of the wrath of her sister I don’t know). She asks her sister after this scene if you can dream things that didn’t happen (again, does not want to admit her complicity). I think this is an important scene and is the beginning of her true breakdown. The commune told her that ‘forgetting the past’ is important, but now she is remembering/reliving her past and her involvement in things she is starting to acknowledge to be wrong, so she is in the highly vulnerable position of finally remembering/reliving/realizing her commune living was wrong, but the realization is itself too much to take. The paranoia starts to increase at this time (although she was already peeking out the window of her sister’s house from the beginning). In the gardening scene with her sister, Martha asks “do you hear things on the roof at night”? Then there is the phone call, which could or could not have really happened: my thought that it might not be real is that the person on the line thinks its Zoe at first: wouldn’t Martha be the person everyone is looking for? Did Martha hope that Zoe ‘got away’ too? Then there is the scene as she is going to bed in her sister’s house and hears a car drive up. She peeks out the window and sees the black truck (which brought the new girls to the commune). The next scene shows her looking outside below her window, probably looking to see how someone could get to her window. Then she goes up to the black car and damages it, while in the same clothes (so not a flashback). This where I began to think of the scenes not being real: she in her paranoia is starting to rebel against the cult, but again is too fragile to do it consciously. The very next scene she hears the things on the roof again, which we now know the sister is not hearing, so it reaffirms the paranoia versus reality. The next scene she is cleaning the window with her sister and hears the phone, but her sister appears not to (is she imaging it?). The next scene shows her being molded by her sister (with makeup and hair) while she almost looks panicky (am I being set up for another ‘cleansing ritual’?). Then she sees the bartender and looks even more panicked. After the “Mike’ scene she is fed medication and seems to willingly fall back: she knows what this means in terms of the ritual and becomes passive: her panic has left her unable to rebel anymore. In next scene at the commune, she carries the pot to the barn looking as if it is too much of a load to bear. Then she eats the bread, a flagrant rule breaker. We see the shift from cult acceptance (if not connection), to cult being too much of a burden to bear, to defiance, all in flashback. Back at her sister’s, the flashbacks are becoming part of the present: she is talking out loud in the present while reliving the past. When Patrick breaks in on her in the bathroom, he tells her she hasn’t learned the way to connection yet. Then he attempts some manipulation: “I will expect less from you”. Masterful. But Martha does not fall for it. In one of the best scenes, while she is dreaming/reliving/re-experiencing this attempted manipulation followed by a sexual advance, in real time she rejects the advance with vehement force (again with an added bonus of showing how creepy the husband really is, which we kind of expected since the boat scene: the sister has her own cult leader and cult life she fell for). This is the first scene in which she is not reliving the past since at least her arrival to her sister’s (and for some time in the commune as well: in the flashbacks at the end she is reliving the murder over and over again). Immediately after this breakthrough, her sister then makes explicitly clear that in the present there will be no help for Martha from her. Devastating!! After that it seems that the dreams/flashbacks may have stopped. But then the devastating ending comes. She sees the person across the lake. This is certainly not a flashback, yet from reviewing the movie, I also think it is not reality (plus the person is not the blond: trust me I checked). We watch her suffer a total disconnection between her past AND her present. Her strength to not connect with Patrick now becomes her fatal weakness in that she cannot now connect with anything (except for paranoid thoughts). So here we have true madness, a reality that is parallel to her sister’s reality (they all see the person and the truck) but which envelops her in terror.

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