Martha Marcy May Marlene (United States, 2011)

October 26, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Martha Marcy May Marlene Poster

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet, non-judgmental character study that takes us into the mind and heart of a cult survivor. By flashing back and forth in time periods between the "present" and the "recent past," the film builds a picture of the title individual and provides an understanding of the factors that fuel her decisions. First-time feature director Sean Durkin combines an understated style with an unaffected performance from Elizabeth Olsen with superlative results. Martha Marcy May Marlene offers a challenging, emotionally riveting experience, even if the conclusion dangles at the edge of an unresolvable cliffhanger.

The name she bore from birth through high school was "Martha." The name given to her by charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) was "Marcy May." And the alias she provided when answering the phone at the group's agricultural residence was "Marlene." Combined, these three monikers represent the film's title since it is impossible to clearly delineate where Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene begin and end. A product of a broken home, Martha finds the love and acceptance she craves when she meets cult member Zoe (Louisa Kruase) and her spiritual father, Patrick. She is warmly accepted into the family and encouraged to accept her sexual initiation at Patrick's hands as a "gift." Her faith is shattered, however, by several violent incidents she views as betrayals. She flees to her only surviving relatives: her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy's husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). But the habits and morality with which she was indoctrinated clash with the "civilized" society in which Lucy and Ted exist.

It doesn't require an extensive understanding of cults to recognize parallels between Patrick's "family" and the one assembled by Charles Manson during the late 1960s. In fact, as portrayed by John Hawkes, there's a physical resemblance between the two twisted, charismatic leaders. Martha enters the cult believing they offer acceptance and the warmth of family. She falls under Patrick's spell and, for a while, does his bidding in all things. Escalating violence culminating in a home invasion and murder causes her to re-assess her circumstances; when she escapes, she is convinced they will come after her - whether to bring her back or kill her, she does not know.

Durkin's approach involves the seamless interweaving of events from the two distinct time periods. Unlike other filmmakers who employ a similar storytelling technique, he does not introduce a cue in the main character's appearance to differentiate past from present (Martha looks much the same while at the farm as she does after escaping). As a result, there is sometimes a delay before it can be determined where a scene fits into the overall chronology; this lends a dreamlike aura to Martha Marcy May Marlene that it might not otherwise have had. It also emphasizes how strangely similar Martha's situation is while in the cult from what it becomes once she is out. In both cases, she is a stranger in an uncomfortable surrounding and she gropes for a spark of self-discovery that eludes her.

Martha Marcy May Marlene recalls in spirit, if not in specifics, Winter's Bone and Ruby in Paradise. Both earlier movies employed the services of a promising young actress (Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone and Ashley Judd in Ruby) giving a career-defining performance in a low-budget production. Although Elizabeth Olsen may bear an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Maggie Gyllenhaal and is best known to-date as the younger sister of the Olsen Twins, her work here will establish her as a high ceiling performer. This is the kind of out-of-nowhere portrayal that garners attention and earns Oscar nominations. It is the bedrock upon which the movie's success is founded. Although the supporting efforts of John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, and Hugh Dancy cannot be ignored, Olsen is the reason Martha Marcy May Marlene is being distributed, discussed, and debated.

The ending is likely to frustrate some viewers. One can argue that the final shot offers the perfect conclusion for the narrative even though it comes as close as anything since John Sayles' Limbo in leaving viewers hanging. For me, the lack of closure is secondary to a subtler disappointment: I wanted to spend more time with the character. Martha is brought so vividly to life that the desire to experience a few additional moments in her company trumps other concerns. She reminds us that there's so much more to creating a screen persona than slapping together a bunch of readily digestible traits.

Oftentimes, the easiest way to assess the impact of a character study is to determine how long impressions of the central figure endure once the credits have rolled. Does she linger or fade? Is she still around hours later? Days later? Weeks? In the case of Martha Marcy May Marlene, she does not wither into obscurity the way many movie protagonists do. Her story may be unremarkable in a global sense but her personal journey speaks loudly to all those who have wrestled with finding a sense of belonging. It is a privilege to accompany her on this trek.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (United States, 2011)

Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Louisa Krause
Screenplay: Sean Durkin
Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1