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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 Brett Gallman

"This review is brought to you by the letter M."
5 stars

One of my favorite film sub-genres are those 60s and 70s British cult thrillers; Hammer churned out a few of them, but the Brits were releasing these things so often that it must have felt like people were being sacrificed on a weekly basis. While this is all very good, fine pulpy stuff, full of demons, witchcraft, and Christopher Lee, they’re mostly just sordid, occult takes on the very real cult phenomenon that’ll occasionally grab headlines whenever some silver tongued low-life convinces a bunch of people to drink Kool-Aid. In reality, I imagine the experience of being drawn into a cult to be more like the one presented in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Gone are disemboweled goats and counsels of hooded cultists, as they’re in for something more sinister: a smooth-talking, wife-beater-wearing John Hawkes, who has somehow established a commune up in the Caskill Mountains.

That’s where we lay our scene; among the converted is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been renamed Marcy May (hence the mouthful of a title). She’s grown disenchanted with her existence, so she takes off and gets in touch with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn’t spoken to in the 2 years since she joined the cult. After Lucy arrives to collect her, Martha attempts to reintegrate into society by moving in with her sister and her fiancé (Hugh Dancy).

However, she struggles to shake herself of the memories that still haunt her, leading to erratic, paranoia-fuelled behavior as the narrative slips between past and present. It’s said that the best editing is the kind you barely notice, but writer/director Sean Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier have crafted a fascinating portrait of a young woman who isn’t just haunted by her past; instead, she’s constantly lapsing back into it, and the film’s seamless transitions between time periods reflects it. Often, Martha finds herself doing something the present day that has some correlation to a similar action before, so we’re constantly shifting between the two, a technique that’s a bit startling and sometimes disorienting.

This of course mirrors Martha’s fractured psyche, which similarly causes her to lapse into certain behavior she’s learned from her time with the cult, particularly her sexual liberation (she thinks nothing of stripping down to swim in the nude, nor does she balk at walking in on her sister when she’s having sex). She’s obviously damaged, and the script consistently hit’s the high points of her transformation from a naïve, doe-eyed newbie who needs to be indoctrinated to the one doing the indoctrinating when the latest addition to the commune arrives. Dialogue repeats, perhaps because that’s how it really happened or maybe because that’s how Martha recalls it; either way, it reveals the frightening efficiency with which a cult mentality works.

Seamlessly weaving from past to present also masterfully highlights the incredible performance by Elizabeth Olson. In one of the most auspicious acting debuts you’ll ever see, she effectively portrays both the bright, sprightly Martha and the broken, lifeless Marcy May. Somewhere in between is whoever she is as she attempts to recover--slivers of each personality emerge along with that of a scared little girl. This is what she resembles when we really get our first look at her--frightened out of her mind, eating at her food like a bird in a local diner as her eyes dart around the room. She’s left the coven behind, but she’s convinced she’s still hunted. Most films like this would begin at the top and watch the heroine spiral out of control; this one her unraveling two times over, both as she’s absorbed into her cult and as she tries to overcome her paranoia, and both modes are remarkably realized by Olsen.

Mostly, Olsen brims intelligence, and I think that’s her most important quality because it’s terrifying to think that someone so smart can be manipulated into something like this. In this sense, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is as scary as it is powerfully dramatic. While it stays quiet and reserved, there are moments that are unnerving--Martha witnesses animal cruelty and a murder, both of which are committed with a steely, empty-eyed resolve by her fellow cultists. Hawkes is the perfect embodiment of all of this, as he crafts a subtly chilling antagonist who is both emotionally and physically manipulative. He’s so visibly transparent in his goals that we wonder how no one can see through him--he uses the same tricks on all of his girls, but they’re charmed by him nonetheless.

You can actually see the moment that Martha falls completely under his spell--it comes as he sings a song dedicated to and named after her, but I think we can all imagine that he’s made this a routine for every newcomer. As we hear the incongruously jovial song play, we see Olsen tilt her head and smile like a smitten schoolgirl. His warm, inviting presence is too warm and inviting of course, and he’s even betrayed by his bony, angular features; it’s interesting how Hawkes has inverted this sinewy persona from last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” where he played good-hearted man beneath a rough exterior. Here, it’s the opposite, as he’s a monster hiding in plain sight, a charmer who casually rapes his prey after delivering empty, pseudo-psychological platitudes. He’s aware that Martha has come from a broken home, a fact that he seizes on like a predator.

Watching her fall for it all is fascinating and horrifying all the same, and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” stays hypnotic until the final frame, where reality has perhaps completely slipped away. We stay with Martha here, as we’re left questioning just what we’re seeing exactly; for all we know, her paranoia about the cult tracking her down is unfounded.

What isn’t disputable, however, is just how haunting the film’s final shot is, as it captures the overbearing fear and psychological destruction of the title character. While this might be a horror movie in the traditional sense, it’s just as scary as any other cult movie you’ll come across, lack of Satanic rituals be damned.

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originally posted: 12/02/11 08:54:22
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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
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  21-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 21-Feb-2012


  DVD: 21-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Sean Durkin

Written by
  Sean Durkin

  Elizabeth Olsen
  Brady Corbet
  Hugh Dancy
  John Hawkes
  Sarah Paulson

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