Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene A Tongue Twister

If there can be one thing said about 2011 it is that it was a great year for actresses. Films like Melancholia, Meeks Cutoff, Another Earth, Hanna, and The Help, just to name a few, all showcased fully realized female characters. Martha Marcy May Marlene is another film that falls into this category as it features one of the best breakthrough performances of the year.

The film’s title, Martha Marcy May Marlene, refers to the names that the lead character Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) uses over the course of the film. After two years of living in a cult-like community, Martha flees the group and goes to live with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). As Martha struggles to adapt to life with her sister, she becomes increasingly paranoid that Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of the cult, and the rest of his disciples will track her down.

For a feature film debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite an accomplishment for director Sean Durkin. He effortlessly creates an atmosphere of paranoia through only a few key scenes. It is a smart choice on his part to have Martha drift between the present and memories of the past. Not only is this useful for explaining Martha’s life within the cult, but it forces the audience to question whether Martha’s paranoia is causing her to go insane.

Elizabeth Olsen is outstanding in the role of Martha, it is fascinating to see her run the gambit from naïve newbie at the compound, to cold calculated believer, to lost soul trying to find her way. By time she reaches Lucy’s home Martha is a walking contradiction of ideals. On one hand she wants to rid herself of the cult life, however, she cannot shake the brainwashing. This is what makes her attempts at assimilating into Lucy’s “normal” life, which Martha deems as excess, so complicated. John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson also give strong performances. Hawkes is mesmerizing as the manipulative leader who manages to justify criminal acts, such as robbery and rape, as being for the overall benefit of the group. Paulson does a wonderfully understated job as Lucy. She brings out Lucy’s complex mix of love and frustrations. She is desperate to reconnect with Martha on an emotional level and help her through whatever mental issues she is facing. However, Lucy knows that she is unable to provide Martha with the professional help she really needs.

At times Martha Marcy May Marlene falls prey to keeping things a secret for far too long. While it is obvious that the dramatic experience of the past has damaged Martha’s mental state, she never gives one ounce of information to her sister about what occurred. Even when she is in a dreamlike-state of confusion as to whether what she is experiencing is the present or the past, Martha never opens up about what she did or saw. There are times when the film would have benefitted from not having so much left unsaid. However these are minor quibbles in a film that is otherwise engaging from beginning to end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the indie gems of 2011.


  1. Awesome review! This is one of my favorites of the year, I just loved the fluid back-and-forth narrative technique and Olsen's mesmerizing performance. I know what you mean about too much being left unsaid, but in the end I thought that was the right choice, as things become so terrifying for Martha partially because she's completely alone in her paranoia. It makes the scarier parts more effective.

  2. great review here. I was curious a little bit about this film and how the subject could be carried through its entire length. Thanks for the good rundown.

  3. Good review C.S. I couldn't fully get into this film because I do think there were many tense moments and Olsen's performance was very good but overall, it was repetitive. Glad to see Sarah Paulson get a good role though.

  4. Can't wait for this, to be honest. Part of it is the tremendous buzz, but part of it is also the fact I'm a John Hawkes fan. Why does Europe suddenly fall three months behind the States in Awards season? Argh!

  5. @Alex – I can see your point on how the unsaid moments had to Martha’s overall paranoia. Olsen is really outstanding in the film, especially in the scenes were she is clearly losing grip on reality.

    @Scarletsp1der – I would recommend you give the film a shot. It is an interesting premise that is executed quite well.

    @Dan O – I really liked Paulson on the show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it is too bad that the show got cancelled.

    @Darren – We have the same issues in Canada for certain films. A number of titles included in many award season lists do not reach us until the New Year.


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