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Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

November 13, 2011
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Director Sean Durkin makes an impressive feature film debut with the haunting story of a traumatized ex-cult member who descends into madness when she tries to return to normal life. Watching the film feels like being kicked in the gut, because Martha’s story is so harrowing to watch, and Durkin’s screenplay transgresses traditional storytelling.

In a jarring, frantic opening sequence Elizabeth Olsen (playing title character Martha) commands the screen as the childlike woman we’ll watch go down a nightmarish rabbit hole for the duration of the movie. Martha contacts her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) after fleeing a small, creepy cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick is the perfect combination of slimy, shady, and scary, and we see in flashbacks that he used sex as a control mechanism over the hapless women in the cult. He also could turn lethal at the drop of a hat, as demonstrated in a horrible scene of mental manipulation involving a shotgun. The small clan is largely self-sufficient on a farm that is perfect for isolating the members from society.

Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are alarmed when Martha’s behavior radically swings from naïve to flat-out bizarre and inappropriate. It becomes clear very quickly that Martha’s grasp on reality is tenuous at best, but Martha won’t open up to them at all.

Though the film is deliberately paced, Durkin’s melding of flashbacks, dream sequences, and Martha’s real-time life keeps you on your toes. It’s purposely ambiguous, particularly at the end, but I loved film. It takes a lot for a film to make me feel sick for hours or days after viewing it, but I couldn’t quit thinking about the psychological implications of living in that cult. I do wish that we could have seen a little more background on the cult and leader, though. What attracted these women there? As far as charismatic leaders go, Patrick doesn’t seem to be a particularly smart one. He’s just vicious. I would love to have seen how and why Martha ends up there in the first place, or why any of the women did.

Elizabeth Olsen is amazing as Martha, a fractured shell of a woman. It’s a brave performance, and Olsen had to be extremely vulnerable in the role, especially stepping out of her famous sisters (the Olsen twins) Hollywood shadow. And she doesn’t just step out of it; she leaps over their teenybopper performances with shocking ease. Olsen’s name will be brought up come awards time-she already won breakthrough performance at the Gotham Awards, where the film cleaned up with ensemble acting and directing awards as well. Hawkes is a cast standout as well with his icy cold persona.

Since Lucy and her husband are residing at a lake house when Martha comes to stay with them, the backdrop is perfect for cinematography, and the water and wilderness surrounding the house seem to have a calming effect on the earthy Martha. Her quiet scenes filmed in the lake are beautiful. It’s a nice contrast to have all that tranquility around her volatile mind, and adds another layer of etherealness to the film, along with the dream sequences. Even if you don’t love the movie, you won’t soon forget it. This is one of my favorites of the year.

Rating 4.5/5

Martha Marcy May Marlene is rated R. Written and Directed by Sean Durkin. Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, and John Hawkes

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