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Overall Rating
4.6

Awesome76%
Worth A Look: 12%
Average: 8%
Pretty Bad: 4%
Total Crap: 0%

3 reviews, 7 user ratings


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Martha Marcy May Marlene
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by Jay Seaver

"Three names for one great performance (and more)."
5 stars

There's maybe a little license taken with the shifting timelines of "Martha Marcy May Marlene", in that it's a little convenient that the title character's relevant flashbacks and reactions are triggered in just such a ways as to make both stories fairly linear. But if that's the extent of issues one has with a movie that is excellent in just about every other area, then the filmmakers have done very well indeed; it's no exaggeration to say that Sean Durkin and company have made a gem.

Even though we're only given a brief, but telling, look at the farm in upstate New York where Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living for the past two years at the beginning, she seems to walk away unusually easily, with the housemate sent to town after her not doing much at all to bring her back to Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of this group. Instead, she's picked up by sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who brings Martha to the lake house that she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) have rented for the summer. Right away, it's an uncomfortable fit, with Martha unwilling to talk while Lucy and Ted are slow to realize that her erratic behavior signifies that the bad breakup story she's given them is at the very least incomplete.

The supporting cast in this movie is kind of interesting, in how they tend to invert expectations somewhat. John Hawkes, for instance, never really goes big when one might expect the charismatic cult leader to do so; when he starts lecturing, he seems weak; he's at his most powerful when he's casual (his biggest alpha-male display comes playing guitar). On the other side of the movie, Hugh Dancy makes common sense and compassion seem sort of heartless, while Sarah Paulson does a very nice job of playing Lucy's guilt and shallowness side by side.

Of course, they're all secondary to Elizabeth Olsen; she may not be in every scene of the movie, but her Martha is certainly at least hovering right outside the ones missing her (to the point where they're often filmed through doorways). There's a look on her face in the early scenes on the farm that maybe suggests that she knows that she's being fed a line but thinks she can just get she wants out of her time there, and Olsen plays that pride as Martha's tragic flaw throughout the film; it's always there, whether helpful or not, even if it's often hidden behind shell-shocked damage. It's a remarkably compelling performance, able to hold the audience's rapt attention throughout the entire movie.

As much as Olsen's performance will be the thing that leaps out at most viewers - as it should be - writer/director Sean Durkin does a few things with the rest of the story that are well worth note. Patrick's cult, for instance, is almost entirely a cult of personality: Although he exercises control in many of the same ways religious cults do (for instance, calling Martha "Marcy May" helps to isolate her from her old life), God is never mentioned. Combined with the back-and-forth movement in time and sustained focus on Martha's point of view, even audience members knowing what they were getting into may find themselves maneuvered into treating the group more as a hippie commune than a cult early on, especially when watching Martha's somewhat confused reintroduction to the more ostentatious, consumerist lifestyle Lucy and Ted lead.

It's a clever bit of manipulation that sometimes seems to be close to cheating, as Martha's emotional state in the present sometimes seems to be catching up to the story of her being integrated into Patrick's group. I suspect that a second viewing will reveal more bits that foreshadow events not seen until later (like the early moment when Martha asks Lucy how far they are from where Lucy found her); even without that, one must admire the smooth way in which Durkin and company move between threads. They not only don't use a lot of obvious signifiers to distinguish "now" from "then", but they also manage to make very close ties between scenes (e.g., getting ready to swim now, actually jumping into the water in flashback) without it seeming trite; it not only makes the film a smooth watch, but reinforces the idea that Martha is having trouble separating the past and present without making a big deal out of it.

I also love the last shot of the movie, which takes what seems for a second like a suspense beat and instead uses it to really get the audience into where Martha's head is at that moment, then cutting off right where a more typical recovery drama would begin. It keeps the focus exactly where it belongs, and that singular focus on the title character makes the film unique.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21762&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/29/11 11:29:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/27/12 David Pollastrini This Olson is a better actress than her twin sisters 4 stars
4/04/12 Jason Coffman Reminded me of creepy 70s female-centric horrors. 4 stars
3/27/12 The Taitor Good acting, boring storyline 2 stars
3/20/12 Herbert M Berman Brilliant exploration of troubled minds—Martha and the cult. 5 stars
12/01/11 Langano Good acting but left me unsatisfied. 3 stars
10/29/11 Louis Blyskal Just OK 3 stars
10/21/11 PAUL SHORTT MOODY, MOVING, ATMOSPHERIC, POWERFUL DRAMA WITH A GREAT STAR PERFORMANCE 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  21-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 21-Feb-2012

UK
  N/A

Australia
  21-Oct-2011
  DVD: 21-Feb-2012


Directed by
  Sean Durkin

Written by
  Sean Durkin

Cast
  Elizabeth Olsen
  Brady Corbet
  Hugh Dancy
  John Hawkes
  Sarah Paulson



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