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Review: 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' A Stunner With A Breakout Turn By Elizabeth Olsen

by James Rocchi
October 19, 2011 5:11 AM
12 Comments
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The following is a reprint of our review from Sundance.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) wakes up in a crowded farmhouse in rural New York -- and runs across the road and into the trees. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and Martha has promises to both keep and break. And like that, we’re hurled into Sean Durkin’s harrowing, gorgeously shot psychological drama -- one of the standout films of Sundance 2011, and a stunningly strong debut. Martha reaches out to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and despite not having heard from Martha in two years, Lucy comes to get her with the sound of both sympathy and judgment in everything she says. Taken in by Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha can’t quite bring herself to tell her sister exactly where she’s been and what she’s been doing, even as it becomes harrowingly clear that Martha’s life for the past two years was far from ordinary -- and may be far from over. The film’s title combines all the names Martha’s been known by, or given, or has given, in her recent past -- and that shifting, unfixed confusion defines the terrors and tones of the film.

Flashing back, Martha’s past becomes partially clearer to us even as it’s kept from Lucy. Martha, lost and adrift, found a commune and a community, led by Patrick (John Hawkes). And the communal effort and shared meals are revealed as something much more cruel and complex as we witness what Martha had done to her -- and, worse, what she herself did. Durkin’s interested in exploring cults, and cults of personality -- Hawkes has the charisma and temperament of an Old Testament scion -- but he’s also crafted a subtle, insidious film about identity and trauma that forgoes over-explaining things in favor of a mood, and mystique, that sinuously worm themselves into your brain as you watch.


Olson’s performance is amazing -- much is asked of her as an actress, and much is given. Martha’s unable to explain what exactly happened to her -- and Lucy at first thinks she’s simply been off on a journey of post-adolescent angst. And Martha’s briefly able to put up a brave front that everything’s fine until the real nature of the past two years cracks through the façade of normalcy. There are elements in her performance that sound, on paper, like indie-film clichés -- nudity, sex, harrowing emotional breakdowns -- but Olson makes them part of an organic, living performance, and your attention is riveted by the sadness and worry playing silently across her face throughout much of the film.

Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography and Zac Stuart-Pontier’s editing work hand-in-hand to create Martha’s world -- and also convey the fluid flicker as her past leaks into her present. We always know where we are in the timeline of the film, but the membrane between past and present is so permeable, so thin and delicate, that we become partners in Martha’s confusion. The score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is also a highlight of the film, electronic droning and slow notes reaching crescendos of intensity that become almost unbearable before snapping back to a silence fraught with the tension of what can happen next.

Paulson does excellent work as Lucy -- comfortable, clueless, and yet more than willing to listen to the little Martha is able to convey to her. But Hawkes, a year after another riveting Sundance performance in “Winter’s Bone,” is fascinating and haunting as Patrick. A manipulator, a cult leader and a charmer, Patrick is capable of incredible grace (singing a song of love to Martha in front of the commune) and terrible brutality, and his quiet contemplation is just as grim as his shouted fury. (When Martha acts out, Patrick’s response is a masterwork of manipulative game-playing: “Maybe I asked too much of you too soon; I’ll expect less of you from now on. …” )

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is superbly acted and assembled, but it is also entirely terrifying, and deeply disquieting, building a mood of paranoia with both intense, brutal transgressions and small, creepy touches of tone. The commune’s telephone -- with instructions and procedures for dealing with callers scrawled on the wall around it -- is a moment of set design that chills with unexplained implications. A series of home burglaries play out with brazen calm that turns far more intense. And Martha, ostensibly safe with her sister, can’t tell if the cult is still in her life or just still in her head -- and neither can we, and we find it equally hard to determine which would be worse. Superbly crafted, stunningly well-acted and more than willing to let our imagination fill out the spaces in its gorgeous shadowed darkness, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a film of haunting beauty that marks Durkin’s arrival as a subtle and strong director to watch. [A+]

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12 Comments

  • jingmei | October 25, 2011 7:37 AMReply

    Like both Take Shelter and MMMM, and completely agree that "Maybe it wasn’t on the surface, but there was plenty going on underneath".

  • Ben | October 24, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    I honestly don't get the gripe with the title. First, it's original and sounds different than "A Better Way" or "Just Because" or "Martha" and all the other boring film titles. Second, it fits the story perfectly. Just like the scenes between the farm and her sister's house, the title flows together so you don't know where reality begins and ends.

    If you thought this was boring, honestly, it's because you don't have an attention span. Every shot and direction was filled with complete, aware motivation for conveying the story. So it didn't have traditional plot beats, that doesn't mean nothing was going on. Maybe it wasn't on the surface, but there was plenty going on underneath. Agree with the A+, would probably rank in among the best films of the past 20 years.

  • Christopher Bell | October 21, 2011 10:30 AMReply

    YES FLETCHER. FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, SOMEONE NEEDS TO LIST JAN NEMEC.

    And say "Christ," apparently.

    I'm with KJ with MMMM though. Script was very problematic for me and the cinematography was very flawed... that said, it lingered with me more than most movies this year.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | October 19, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    I will slightly agree with you Fletcher. I liked it, but didn't love it. I would probably give it a B. That said, to say its "first rate bore" is pretty dismissive and reactionary.

    And fyi, "Take Shelter" is one of the best movies of the year.

  • Fletcher Murdock | October 19, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    I think the problem is the opposite, actually. My tastes are not generic and/or milquetoast enough to be duped into praising this sort of indie arthouse b.s. At least Super 8 is what it is unabashedly and it works. I cited it because it's a movie we've probably all seen. Would you rather I list Jan Nemec or Kenji Mizoguchi? Will someone back me up on this? It's BORING! And not about ANYTHING!

  • Christopher Bell | October 19, 2011 6:57 AMReply

    I liked MMMM and Take Shelter -- the latter moreso. Fletcher's entitled to his tastes no matter how generic it is.

  • jimmiescoffee | October 19, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    awful title. good movie.

  • Fletcher Murdock | October 19, 2011 6:41 AMReply

    Well, knock yourself out. Sadly, there are no details - you know, a plot, or even interesting ideas, camera work, etc. - to spoil.

  • Nik Grape | October 19, 2011 6:26 AMReply

    Calling Super 8 excellent, Take Shelter bad and saying Shame and Drive are pretty flawed won't get you much trust from me. Sorry.

    I can't wait for MMMM and I'm refusing to read this review only because I'd like no details spoiled.

  • Fletcher Murdock | October 19, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    Money ball was pretty great. Contagion was solid. Shame and Drive were both pretty flawed but definitely worth seeing. Super 8 was excellent. Midnight in Paris and Horrible Bosses were both embarrassing.

  • Fred | October 19, 2011 5:48 AMReply

    @Murdock
    Since you ask us "Trust me on this one folks," how about touting two of your favorite recent films to establish where your tastes lie so we can decide if you're "trustworthy."

  • Fletcher Murdock | October 19, 2011 5:41 AMReply

    I could not disagree more. MMMM was - much like the equally bad TAKE SHELTER - a first rate bore, made by some film school clown who thinks "pregnant pauses" equate to tension and being sullen equates to acting. Trust me on this one folks another over-hyped sundance time-waster.

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