Mark Reviews Movies

Martha Marcy May Marlene


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sean Durkin

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Maria Dizzia, Brady Corbet, Julia Garner, Christopher Abbott

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/21/11 (limited); 10/28/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2011

A question rises after an early scene of Martha Marcy May Marlene (four words for the three names of one person). In it, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) sits in a diner, eating a meal. She has just run away from a farm in the middle of the woods, and a young man from the same farm named Watts (Brady Corbet) enters, sits down next to her, and takes the plate in front of her, from which she now no longer wants to eat, to have a few bites. He asks why she ran; she doesn't really have an answer. He rises to stand by her and leans in; she flinches. He kisses her on the forehead and says good-bye before walking out of the restaurant without even a glance back.

The question: Why doesn't he attempt to take her back? The answer is at the insidious heart of the matter of first-time writer/director Sean Durkin's tale of a young woman who escapes a physical kind of imprisonment only to find herself unable to break free of its psychological sway. It's a simple one: He doesn't need to take her back; they still and, for the foreseeable future, will have power over her.

Watts is part of a cult (The word is never used, primarily because Martha refuses to talk about the group and, on a more fundamental level, does not see it that way). Its leader is Patrick (John Hawkes), a relatively unremarkable man who yet has a devoted following of young men and women. The influence of cult leaders, though, has always been not only in what they say but also to whom they say it, and Patrick is no different. Late in the film, there's a faintly telling scene in which Martha, calling herself "Marlene," answers a phone in the main house of the compound to talk to another girl. How the girl got the number is unknown, but we can only imagine her reading a personal ad somewhere or speaking with one of Patrick's minions, who drive off from the farm at regular intervals and sometimes return with a new member, telling her exactly what she wants to hear (The men, it seems, are more than happy to be in close quarters with the women and need no other reason).

For Martha, whom, on a whim, Patrick decides looks more like a "Marcy May" (He does this for every new recruit, and he and his followers start calling her by her new name), all he needs to do is bring up her father (Her mother died)—how he left, how she doesn't trust people, and how she'll need to start opening up to him and the rest at the farm if she's going to stay. She is "a teacher and a leader," he says, and no one else in her life but him has been able to recognize it. Everyone has a role at the farm, and the other women encourage her to do what she can and learn the rest with time. When the group gathers to listen to Patrick one afternoon, he announces that he's written a new song, and it's all about "Marcy."

Durkin reveals these details of Martha's routine life at the farm in flashbacks—sometimes dreams, sometimes waking memories—as she attempts to readjust to life with her remaining family two years after joining with Patrick's camp. After her encounter with Watts at the restaurant, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up. She moves in with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), a well-to-do architect, at their summer home on a lake in upstate New York. When either asks about the missing years, Martha simply says she lived with a boyfriend and that the two have since broken up.

The irony is that Lucy is controlling in her own way, although in a much more reasonable manner than Patrick. She insists that Martha properly dress, eat healthy, and not skinny dip in the lake, as there are neighbors with children. It's easy to understand and yet somehow impossible to comprehend how Martha saw Patrick, with his hollow words, as a viable alternative to this past life, in which Lucy, frustrated with how resistant her sister is to a state of normalcy, reminds her how she fought to ensure Martha went to college to make something of her life.

Underneath the familial conflict, something sinister brews. Martha hears noises on the roof, sees what looks to be a truck similar to Patrick's parked behind some trees on the boundaries of the house, and is certain that the bartender at one of Lucy and Patrick's parties is associated with Patrick. Durkin gradually raises the tension of the scenario by gradually revealing the threatening side to Patrick's cult—how he tries to convince Martha to shoot a dying cat, has the other women (who, in turn, teach their comrades to) drug the latest convert for a "cleansing, "and, when the plan to make money by running an honest-to-goodness farm fails, comes up with a strategy of robbing nearby homes.

Past and present live side-by-side in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and eventually we begin to question whether those sounds and sights that frighten her to a gradual breakdown are real or an effect of her paranoia (Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' cacophonous score during the building climax follows the internal menace of Martha's mind). Durkin's pacing is methodical, giving a lulling sensation that offsets Martha's anguish, and the ending is ambiguous in specifics but plain in meaning: Here is a life ruined.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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