Martha Marcy May Marlene

27 Nov

Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Year: 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
MPAA Rating: R, disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language
Runtime: 102 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%


Expectations were running incredibly high for me going into Martha Marcy May Marlene, the buzz surrounding it, and especially the lead debut performance by Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley’s younger sister) were seriously superb, and the supporting cast included actors I really love like Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes, the latter of which seems to be really hitting a stride after his impeccable performance in last year’s masterful Winter’s Bone (which I gave an A+ to). So I went into it really expecting to be impressed by this film by first time feature writer-director Sean Durkin, and I left it feeling thoroughly satisfied with what I had just seen, this is a tremendous film, a really gripping psychological drama that creates this terrifically haunting atmosphere and is grounded by a pitch-perfect performance by the young Ms. Olsen, who should seriously be in contention for an Oscar nomination.

If you don’t know a thing about this movie you may be wondering about the riddle-like title of it, and what exactly does it mean. Let me explain it to you, Martha is Ms. Olsen’s character real name, Marcy May is the name given to her be the leader of the cult she’s in, and Marlene is the name the women in this cult use to answer the phone. Yes, this is a movie about a cult, one that’s located in a white farmhouse in upstate New York and, in case you were wondering, Mr. Hawkes is the one in charge of playing Patrick, the leader of the cult who gives Martha her new name and who controls the group of people living under him, most of whom are obviously women.

There’s something about Mr. Hawkes’ perfomance as Patrick that’s just incredible to watch. This guy is an actor I really like, and the stuff he brings to this role is just so exquisite to watch come to life, he plays Patrick perfectly, creating a man that you can very possibly see how he could get you to trust in him, to love him and then, finally, to subconsciously relent all your decisions to his will the way all cult leaders do. It’s a chilling performance that only an actor as great as Mr. Hawkes could have pulled off, those early scenes in which he gets acquainted with Martha are tremendous, he’s seductive almost, making himself and his community incredibly appealing to a girl in need of a father figure and a place to call home, he’s an incredibly magnetic actor, and he totally sells you on Patrick, making you believe that he’s a man both intellectually and emotionally capable of such extreme psychological manipulation. The scene in which he sings “Marcy’s Song”, a folk tune by Jackson Frank, will send chills down your spine, because under all the sweetness that’s apparently in the song you will see the glimmer of a quietly confident man in full brainwashing mode, and if you’ve seen Winter’s Bone then you know the effect Mr. Hawkes’ eyes can have.

That scene though early in Martha’s story is one we get some time into the film, in one of the many flashbacks used by Mr. Durkin to little by little shine a light on why Martha is such a damaged girl. Instead, when the film opens we see her running away from the cult and calling her married older sister, Lucy, the character played by Ms. Paulson, who comes to pick her up and take her to the lake house she shares with her husband, a British architect named Ted who’s played by Hugh Dancy.

Their relationship is clearly strained, when Martha calls Lucy you see in her eyes and voice that she wasn’t necessarily happy to be calling her sister after living in a cult, but instead it was a call made out of necessity, because family is kind of obliged to take you in. And while Lucy certainly seems to care for her sister, you do get to see a distance between the two, and she clearly can’t really see how damaged her younger sister appears to be. Because damaged is a good word to describe Martha’s state of mind, one that’s not only having a hard time restarting a normal life that isn’t dictated by Patrick’s rules but that’s also flooded by a paranoia that they’ll find her and take her back. She’s struggling to shed away the imposed personality of Marcy May and find Martha again.

I thought it was a very smart move by Mr. Durkin to present us with this time-shifting narrative, moving along at a free pace between the two years Martha spent in the cult and the present as she’s trying to get back her life with Lucy and Ted. It was a smart move because it creates a sense of confusion in our minds as viewers, and the structure of how the story evolves gradually makes us join in Martha’s paranoia that the cult might resurface to take her back. And to see the two timelines at the same time also enables us to feel how the two are probably mixed up in Martha’s own mind, she knows that she’s out of the cult but the teachings of Patrick and the cult will stay with her for quite some time, he made sure of that by ripping her of her identity from the moment she set foot on his compound, by establishing himself as a ruler in her mind.

It’s truly commendable how Mr. Durkin shows us the world of the cult, he basically acts as Patrick in a way, easing us into that new reality little by little. First he shows us the good things, working on the farm and caring for the community’s infants, and once we’re engaged with the story he shows us the more shocking aspects of the world ran by Patrick, one in which all women have to sleep with him and, perhaps most frighteningly, are under the impression that it’s their desire to do so, when we knows its clear that Patrick has already robbed them of their own free will without them even knowing so. All of this is shown with such masterful pacing that we don’t really feel the grip of the movie tightening until we start sharing Martha’s paranoia and fears and sympathize with her case, knowing both how hard it must be to leave the cult once that she’s so deep in it, and how hard it must be readjusting to normal life, especially considering Ted and Lucy aren’t really the most helpful when it comes to realizing how deeply disturbed she is psychologically.

A lot of the credit for this working as outstandingly as it did has to go to Ms. Olsen. This is probably one of my favorite female lead performances of the year so far, if not my absolute favorite, she’s just so, so good here. She’s pretty much playing three roles, after all, because the three names represent three women who all behave in different ways, and she’s impeccable as each one of them, making you believe all three personalities. The fact that such a young actress was given such a wide range of emotions to play in her first leading performance and that she nailed them like she did speaks volumes about her power as an actress, about her presence, there’s just something so deep and vulnerable about her, not to mention she’s breathtakingly beautiful, that I think it’s imminent that she becomes one of the very best actresses around. This is a remarkable film, one of the year’s best and that’s certainly introduced us to one of the brightest young stars we have today.

Grade: A+


One Response to “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

  1. CMrok93 November 28, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    Nice review. This film is definitely different in the way it tells its story and the story it’s trying to tell, and while that’s very much something to applaud, it just didn’t come together for me as well as it could have. Olsen and Hawkes were very good but overall, the film just didn’t do much for me as it did for others. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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