Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Sean Durkin
Sean Durkin
102 min.
Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Christohper Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause, Adam Thompson
MPAA Rating
R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language

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The seductive lure of cults lies in their ability to give you hope and purpose when your life lacks direction. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, our three-name heroine escaped, but her mind has yet to let go.

Martha by birth, Elizabeth Olsen tackles a duality of roles that is impressive from the outset. Frightened and disjointe, Martha calls her skeptical sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) wanting her help, but afraid to accept it. Lucy insists on bringing her back after her long absence, and giving her a place to stay while they try to figure out how to readjust Martha to the real world. As they struggle to cope, Martha flashes back to the warm and rosy memories she had with the cult, questioning her rationale to leave the group. Blended with snippets of the negative, Martha vascilates refrequently, keeping her from opening up to the one person who could assist.

Under the domineering, but amiable leadership of Patrick (John Hawkes), the small backwoods cult relies entirely on its own strengths to survive, whether it’s farming or mending. Patrick is a charismatic presence, helping Martha, whom they call Marcy May, slowly enfold in their group. After being assigned chores to assist with day-to-day living, her indoctrination is completed through a drug-induced rape welcoming her to the fold and cementing Patrick’s mental influence over her. The cult’s attitude and organization plays out similarly across gender roles. The women are strong, yet docile creatures believing themselves to be enabled, yet buckling under the yoke of oppression while the men don’t seem to be subject to the same level of brainwashing, satisfied in their role as dominants and sexual aggressors. Even when Marcy May finds the quiet, affable Watts (Brady Corbet) with whom to share something more substantive than with Patrick, his treatment of her is always tinged with a mysogynistic influence that, by this time in her thralldom, seems utterly non-existent to her.

The various scenes depicting the cult are relayed entirely through flashbacks in Martha’s memory. She never opens up about her time to Lucy, nor her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) perhaps fearing that telling them too much would lead to their jeopardy. The audience should have little trouble seeing familiar elements in the cult’s activities to modern organizations both religious and secular. These groups convince others that their community alone can provide for their welfare and that anything other than doctrine can lead to trouble for everyone. It’s a grim look at the power cults cling to in an effort to enforce its will and beliefs on those they control.

Olsen is the youngest of the three Olsen girls. While her bigger sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley have been prominent media figures for the better part of two decades, Elizabeth has remained mostly inconspicuous, choosing as her feature fiction debut this dark and ominous indie thriller. Her sisters spent their childhoods charming TV viewers on Full House and later as business magnates running their own clothing and makeup lines, yet their precocious child performances were merely that whereas Olsen displays a real gift for the performing arts. Conveying the terror, trepidation and subservient menace that Martha requires, Olsen creates an indelible and genre-defining creation of cult-bleached quietude. With shifting personalities throughout the film, Olsen is a tremendous talent that needs to be further nurtured and not abused in blockbuster features where she’s given thin characterizations to envlope.

That in itself is tribute to first-time writer/director Sean Durkin whose film is a strange collection of scenes that paint a fascinating, if terrifying pictures of cult tactics, mental influence and the difficult challenge of breaking free. The structure of the film lends itself poorly to effective cinematic translation, creating several chances to confuse or alienate viewers. Durkin avoids many of those flaws, drawing the audience in further with each new reveal.

As Martha slowly loses her grip on her desire to be free of the cult, so too do the dark visions and memories that surface. Her fear of what could happen to her and her family slowly weeds its way into her subconscious and eventually leads her to seeing agents of the cult in every day situations. Does she really recognize these people or is her mind playing tricks on her and inventing ghosts where there aren’t any. Only Durkin and Olsen seem to know for sure. The film ends with a speculative conclusion that asks viewers to decide whether Martha has finally lost her grip on reality or if real danger still persists. It’s a fascinating finale that leaves interpretation open in the best possible way. With so many movies trying to tie things up, yet leaving a mystery for audiences to digest, these productions can often feel hollow and gimmicky. Martha Marcy May Marlene walks a fine line of avoiding that trap and ends up as a mentally jarring and evocative film as a result.

Note: I left out reference to the third name in the title after Martha and Marcy May. Apart from its titular reference, Marlene is mentioned only one time in the movie. In a scene about half way through, Martha answers the phone in the cult compound as Marlene. The reference seems to be that this is a type of code name that will likely ferret out intrusive investigations into the group. Not only are the women given new names upon joining, their loved ones, should they some how try to track them down, won’t be encouraged to investigate further by hearing a familiar name on the other line. Much of this last part is pure speculation based on the organization presented in the film, but it adds an interesting side-discussion point that may be worth talking about should the movie not be enough by itself, which it should be.
Review Written
July 13, 2012

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