Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Director: Sean Durkin

****

At one point in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a cult member tells Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) that “there’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film alive with creepy potency, reminding us of just how fragile and shifting our trusts and allegiances can be.

Sean Durkin’s feature debut is a scary and scarily good portrait of a mind damaged by misplaced trust. Cults prey upon those who are confused about themselves or their lives, and the fact that Martha has become someone else, this Marcy May persona, shows the corruptive and hypnotic powers a charismatic cult leader can have. The group in MMMM isn’t necessarily a religious group, but it is a dippy hippy commune centered around a charismatic leader (Patrick, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes). Martha is pretty and blossoming, a perfect piece of prey for this happy camp. However, sexual freedoms and idealistic portrayals of nature morph into something else, and it’s not long before the newly-christened Marcy May is running home. This is the point where MMMM actually begins, and the film jumps back and forth (sometimes confusingly) between Martha’s time in the commune and her struggle to readjust to life with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Her awkward and erratic behaviour can all be traced back to her time in the catskills commune; bizarre attitudes to sex, outside contact and family leave Martha disoriented once taken out of the commune context. Olsen steps out of the shadow of her famous family with a mesmerizing performance. It’s not just her beauty that keeps you watching; it’s her gutsiness masking an identifiable frailty. The same confused waif who was seduced by Patrick(‘s cult) is the same girl who found the courage to run away. Meanwhile, Hawkes seduces and disquiets simultaneously (and sings too!) and the unease builds as Martha begins to fear the cult are looking for her once more…

The greatest horrors build suspense from the everyday; MMMM slowly builds up the suspense to emerge as something genuinely creepy. One can sense writer-director Durkin’s confidence in the story he wants to tell, and the confidence is justified. It’s a cautionary tale, a mystery and piece of art rolled into one, like Michael Haneke by way of Terrence Malick. The beginning sees Martha seeking liberation, but by the end you will be held hostage to MMMM’s intensity. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow-build experience that chills the spine and engages the imagination.

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