Martha Marcy May Marlene

by on March 9th, 2011
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Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland

Markus Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars (The strongest 4 star rating I’ve ever given)

Rated R for disturbing violence and sexual content, nudity and language

Here is my early review of: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, try saying that title five times fast! Coming out of the starting gates strong with his full-length directorial debut, what Sean Durkin has done here with his new film (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is written a compelling story while quietly creating a visual masterpiece. Telling the story of a twenty-something named Martha, played brilliantly by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (that’s right the (much more talented) sister of Mary Kate and Ashley), who escapes from a cult located in the outskirts of New York State. This hippie-ish cult is run by Patrick played by John Hawkes, who has an affinity for the playing his guitar, giving young women nicknames, brainwashing and rape. Once off of the “compound”, Martha stays with her estranged older sister, but as the days go by she begins to be overtaken by a dream-like paranoia of her past cult life. A paranoia that breeds serious psychological questions, like: Can Martha ever assimilate to real life again? Can she ever truly get away from her past? And could it be that this cult knows where she is and will soon be at her doorstep?

Durkin uses some brilliant camerawork to blur the lines visually, creating dreamlike sequences juxtaposed with real world visuals. This same technique works just as well to blur the emotional lines between what Martha perceives to be good and bad, what is real and what is in her head and what it means to be a part of a cult versus a functioning member of society. But ultimately what Durkin does best here (and undoubtedly what won him the Best Director Award at Sundance) is his beautiful, constant and seamless transitions through time (from past to present), which will give the audience a real appreciation for the directors editing style and storytelling (in tandem, of course, with a performance of a lifetime from Olsen, whom I’ll speak further on during the next paragraph). Meaning, as the audience moves deeper into this film and the storyline attempts to become somewhat muddled, the audience is still gracefully (visually) propelled back and forth from her life with her sister and her life with the cult. The editing is so crisp here that even with the constantly shifting visuals at no time will the audience become temporally confused. Durkin also uses these flashbacks, camera focuses and intense fades to skew the viewer’s sense of reality even more, allowing the audience to feel that same paranoia that Martha is feeling. This aspect alone gives the film a visual uniqueness unmatched by any film this year. As for Durkin’s storytelling, his unflinching depiction of a cult “compound” in which women are treated almost like subservient cattle, is so raw and while I don’t want to give away too much because “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is really a film one has to see to believe, what I will say is that “Big Love” ain’t got nothing on this cult!

A Breakout Performance: I’ll say it now. Olsen is this year’s Jennifer Lawrence, but ten times better. And while the show is stolen by the director, Olsen definitely gives an Oscar worth performance. She is nothing short of mesmerizing, outshining a cast with the likes of John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Hugh Dancy (Black Hawk Down), in a brave and nudity filled performance. I would go so far as to say that a film like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” could undoubtedly define her career for years to come. But before I move on, I can’t possibly continue without saying something about the brilliant character-actor Hawkes, who plays maybe his most developed character yet, with just a hint of Charles Manson in his voice and mannerisms.

Final Thought: As visually outgoing (and on-the-edge) as Durkin is, his outgoingness will unfortunately leave him wide-open for criticism. To some audiences aspects of this film will feel very underdeveloped (there isn’t really a beginning and the ending is purposefully ambiguous and abrupt), but in this reviewers opinion that same underdevelopment serves a purpose; to allow the mind the freedom of interpretation. So those who hated the ending of “No Country for Old Men” (aka those who want a plot to be hand fed to them) will in turn be utterly frustrated by the final credits of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. But what may frustrate audiences even more is the annoyance they may feel upon the realization that they are holding up the entire line at the movie theaters, spending ten minutes telling the guy selling tickets how they would like to see a movie called “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. By now you are probably sick of having had to fumble through a title as time consuming as “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, which is laden throughout this review. But even with this title that would send the most avid Scrabble players running for the hills, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is still a gripping, gritty and very real examination of the inner-workings of a cult, is filled with some great performances and showcases some stunning direction. All in all, this film is a must see as it is sure to gain momentum this upcoming awards season.

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