Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene


Some movies are just really good. They won’t be crowd pleasures and they’re definitely a little abstract, but you come out of the the theater knowing that you just saw a fantastic story told amazingly well through the medium of film. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of these movies.

I can promise you right now that half the audience that sees it will hate the ending and another solid chunk of it may find it too slow or uneventful, but for anyone who appreciates cinema this is simply a fantastic film. Few films this year build tension, emotion and intrigue as well as Martha Marcy May Marlene does and even fewer are able to keep you interested while being so subtle. This is not a movie for everyone, but for those can appreciate it it will be a fantastic and chilling movie experience.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director: Sean Durkin
Rated: R
Release Date: October 28, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fantastic thriller without the thrills, a taught drama without the melodrama, and a horror film without the crazy guy with a giant knife stabbing people. Somehow it executes all of these genres to a tee without falling into any of the traps or cliches usually present in them. The story could easily fit into any of these genres too. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) — also known as Marcy May and Marlene during the film — has recently escaped from a rural cult and contacted her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy, has taken Martha into her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and her’s home without the knowledge of where Martha has been or what has happened to her.

A lot has happened to her. Martha, a clearly lost individual, joined what appears to be a commune run by Patrick (John Hawkes). It becomes clear, however, as the film unfolds that this commune is far more of a cult in which Patrick rapes every woman and turns them into psychologically broken people. The brilliance of the film is how director Sean Durkin takes us back and forth between Martha struggling to adapt to life at her wealth sister’s and learning what happened to her during her time with the cult. As her past unfolds the tension in her present situation grows with Martha’s paranoia and fear growing as the threat of Patrick and his cohorts coming to get her grows.

But in reality the threat doesn’t truly grow. We never actually see anyone from the farm once Martha leaves. Instead we are put directly into Martha’s situation with only paranoia and fear to create the idea that Patrick may be coming after her. By juxtaposing details from the past with occurrences in the present the viewer and Martha are constantly on edge about every detail that occurs, which obviously makes things a little tense between Lucy, Ted and Martha. Martha’s gradual decent into fear induced panic builds to a wonderful blowout and a brilliant ending that caps off the film’s themes and ideas perfectly.

This is the kind of movie that rests almost entirely on the performances within it and its hard to find a flaw in any of the ones delivered. While Hugh Dancy probably rolls out of bed prepared to play an arrogant British guy the most impressive performance comes from Olsen whose steady decent into paranoid panic is impressively real. Even more disturbingly delivered is Hawkes charming, alluring and yet terrible cult leader. It’s strangely and disturbingly easy to see how anyone could come under his spell and even easier to be horribly afraid of him. There is something far too charming to about him and yet the entire performance has a second, horribly sinister layer. He’s like the psychotic killer without the psychosis and the killing brilliantly hidden.

There are moments in this move that are just simple conversations, but they’re so layered and textured with different feelings, themes and even storylines that you’re never sure where each one will go. One scene may feel like a family drama at one point then suddenly veer into troubling thriller at the next with just the subtlest change in tone. Martha’s shifting personality and inability to adapt back into the “normal” world leave every scene with her open and intense. It’s never clear where the film will go or what it will do next. In honesty it doesn’t really “do” anything next, but that just keeps everything all the more tense and intriguing.

There are definitely more entertaining films in the theater right now and definitely ones with far more audience appeal, but there is absolutely nothing in theaters like Martha Marcy May Marlene. If you’re looking for something original, engrossing and beautifully done you don’t have to look much further.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.