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Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Saturday, October 22 2011 and posted in Reviews

The gripping drama (and festival favorite) has opened in New York and Los Angeles!

If we can just get home, everything will be all right.  Or not. 

After all, where is home for anyone?  That seems to be the question at the heart of Sean Durkin's directorial debut.  A psychological drama that boasts great, understated acting and very tight editing, Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) who falls in with a small cult that specifically targets disaffected young people for recruitment.  The film opens with Martha escaping from the group and reconnecting with her affluent older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).  Throughout the film, we flashback to the two years Martha spends with the cult as she tries to reacclimate to life in civilization.

While the plot is interesting enough, it's the story structure that makes Martha such an immensely compelling film.  It takes place in two different time periods, and as Martha tries to fit in with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), her every experience is mirrored by her life on the compound with the cult.  She can't relate to her well-meaning but somewhat oblivious sister while reliving the way she was taken in by the creepy charisma of cult-leader Patrick (John Hawkes), who plies her with promises of family and togetherness; things we learn Martha has never really felt with her real family.  For a good long portion of the film, it feels like she'll decide that she was better off with the cult.  Her brainwashing is almost absolute, as she sees glares at Lucy and Ted's life through the lens of her life with Patrick.  She's experiencing more than just an adjustment period; it's an absolute culture clash.  The excesses of Lucy and Ted's modern, upscale life don't jibe with the ascetic farm life she spent the last two years entrenched in. 

Nothing is cut and dry in Martha.  The tragedy of the film1128373_Martha_Marcy_May_Marlene lies in the fact that neither world holds any answers for her, and while she eventually reacts negatively to the direction Patrick takes the cult in (that of sexual domination, orgies, home invasions, and twisted morality regarding to death and murder), she never completely shakes their programming.  She refers to herself using the cult rhetoric as a "teacher and a leader," and she lashes out at Ted over his career ambitions.  She and Lucy have never particularly gotten along, but their inability to reach each other now represents a gulf that may never be repaired.  All the while, Durkin packs in enough twists and chills to really spook the viewer.  There's a real nervous edge to just about every scene in Martha, creating a palpable tension that lasts right through to the final shot. 

Considering Martha's reticence, Olsen has to play things really close to the vest, and is able to say a lot with minimal body language.  She approaches her more outgoing cult persona and her distant, aloof home life with equal aplomb.  She's in almost every shot and carries the film exceptionally.  John Hawkes' Patrick is almost a spectral presence when he's not on screen, considering the influence he exerts over just about everything Martha is going through in the film.  Paulson and Dancy also play their parts well, and Durkin fills the film with clever composition and camera moves to make the most of the flashback structure.  It's a film that could easily have gotten away from a lesser director, especially a first-timer, but Durkin directs with a strong and confident hand. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a young woman stuck between two worlds.  Not fully belonging to either one, she hurtles towards emotional and psychological disaster, and is never truly able to shake the tension of what she's going through.  The film is absolutely gripping and it will stick with you.

Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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