Martha Marcy May Marlene’s abrupt ending, explained

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Dunkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene released in 2011. And it’s left its viewers reeling and puzzled at the abrupt ending showed.

Contains spoilers because we need the movie to explain the ending!

The title mentions four names, but they are of just one- Elizabeth Olsen. Named Martha, she has apparently disappeared with her boyfriend two years ago, without telling anyone.

The movie starts with Martha’s escape & her strange behaviour

In the start, she is escaping a house of a small community early in the morning, through the woods. Followed by a guy Watts from there to a diner, she tells him that she doesn’t want to come back yet. He calmly leaves her there.

She calls her estranged sister Lucy, who insists on coming wherever she is to pick her up. They both reach Lucy and her husband Ted’s rented house 3 hours away somewhere in Connecticut.

Martha’s behaviour is pretty weird. She goes skinny dipping in a public lake. She asks them peculiar questions like “do married people stop having sex?”, which makes the couple a bit uncomfortable.

One night, scared, she quietly comes into Lucy and Ted’s room while they’re having sex and lies down on their bed to sleep. Ted is furious at this and so is Lucy, but she asks Martha to come sleep on her lap after scolding her for her wrong actions.

Flashbacks explain the two years Martha was missing in a tight-knit community

Throughout the movie, flashbacks are peppered here and there to explain Martha’s past & behaviour. She had been a part of Patrick’s rural cult-ish community. That is where she is renamed as Marcy May, stripped off her identity.

Everyone makes her feel like a member of their family, gaining her trust. She is to do work, but whatever she is good at. There are also certain rules of the place, explained through scenes.

Martha seems happy at first, but one night, she drowsily wakes up to Patrick having sex with her. The girls convince her that it’s something good, a cleansing, and happened with them too. After initial disbelief, she seems to accept that.

Everything seemed acceptable at first, but darker things are soon shown. Scenes of orgies, voyeurism are presented. Groups breaks into fancy, houses at night. On one such night, Katie from the cult kills a man. Martha is disturbed by the incident. She questions things. Patrick confronts her about her loyalty, and she says that he can trust her. He comforts her at that.

The present time at Lucy and Ted’s

Martha’s behaviour turns more erratic with each day, given explanation through flashbacks. She gets into arguments with Ted, creates panic and shows paranoia. One night, she calls back at the farm and someone named Marlene Lewis picks up. That’s the name they use for unknown callers. The women on the other end suspects her before Martha cuts the call.

Seeing her behaviour, a frustrated Ted suggests that she be sent for some professional help, to which Lucy agrees. Although they want to help her, she isn’t letting them in.

The unexplained and abrupt ending

In the present day, before the family is leaving for the city, Martha sees someone from the cult watching her as she swims. On their drive to the city, a man suddenly comes out of the side of the road and goes to his car parked on the side.

As Ted drives away, the other car follows them. Martha looks back at it but has a neutral expression on her face. And that is where the movie ends.

Abrupt, right?

Us & what people say about the movie and its ending

The ending definitely is ambiguous, open to interpretation. For us, we didn’t see any character development for the protagonist Martha. Even though she escaped, Patrick’s charismatic brainwash and gaslighting still influence her. Maybe she has left the cult, but the cult hasn’t left her.

Reddit threads have different views of the ending. Some think that everything was just Martha’s delusions/dreams, not a reality. Several others believe that she hasn’t escaped, but gone back to ‘infiltrate’ her family to show Patrick that he can trust her. Or perhaps even to kill her family.

All of this depends how you see the movie or relate to Martha’s character. And that’s what director Sean Durkin said in an interview with The Massive Twins:

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong [ending]. The goal is to create Martha’s experiences on what those two weeks would be like and understanding what it would be like to get out of something like this. I believe ending it this way was the only way to end it.”