The combination of names "Martha", "Marcy May" and "Marlene" reflects the "different faces" and mental confusion of Martha, a young woman who has drifted into life in a cultish commune in the remote Catskill Mountains. Will we ever learn how or why? The film begins with her escape from the community to take refuge with her conventionally middle-class, materialistic sister and her new husband.
The film is unusual in cutting continually back and forth between her life with her sister, in which Martha becomes increasingly more withdrawn and disturbed, and the two years spent in the commune, under the influence of the charismatic but at times menacing, possibly psychotic Patrick, who reminded me of tales of Charles Manson. You need to concentrate hard, not only because of the fragmented storyline, but also owing to the "naturalistic" filming technique, in which people often mumble as in real life, take part in normal, mundane activities and drift across the hand-held lens, perhaps appearing fleetingly at one edge of the screen. Occasional acts of violence erupt suddenly. At times, it has something of the "amateurish" visual quality of "The Blair Witch Project". Much is implied and little specifically stated.
Martha's problems of adapting to "normal life" are portrayed well, together with her relatives' predictable reaction, as when she bathes naked in the lake because that was what she did at the commune. The clash in their values is made clear. One's perception of the commune gradually darkens. At first, it just seems a throwback to pre-female equality days, as we see the women waiting to eat after the men, or the former selecting clothes off a communal rack. Then there is the shocking scene of Martha's ritual initiation to sex with the leader, and so it all gradually gets worse as we come to understand the reasons for her acute distress, complicated by the fact that she is genuinely drawn to an unmaterialistic, commununal way of life.
Although the idea behind the film is interesting, I do not feel that it reaches its full potential. It is too slow-paced and confusing at times and although I do not expect everything to be neatly sewn up, the ending left me dissatisfied.