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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Theatrical Review

Fox Searchlight Pictures; 120 min

Director: Sean Durkin

Written by on October 19, 2011 

A number of noteworthy films on this year’s festival circuit have dealt with fear of impending doom. But while Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter both center on possible prophets plagued by end of the world premonitions, first-time filmmaker Sean Durkin chose to craft a tale with smaller stakes, but greater impact with Martha Marcy May Marlene.

This restrained yet devastating drama drew wild praise at Sundance, as did its breakout star Elizabeth Olsen, (yes – younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley.) Transcending prejudices and expectations, Olsen deserves all the praise she’s garnered and then some for her fearless portrayal of Martha, a troubled young woman who escapes the tricky entanglement of a creepy cult in the film’s first sequence but can’t so easily escape the harrowing memories of what was done to her, and what she became a party to. The film’s group of lost boys and girls is lead by a charismatic but menacing messiah, played by rising talent John Hawkes, who shocked and awed audiences last year with his fierce yet tender portrayal of Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. Hawkes scored an Oscar nomination for his efforts in Debra Granik’s Ozarks-noir, and it’s easy to imagine that this performance will likewise win him further accolades, and deservedly so! As this master manipulator who mingles warmth and sex appeal with an ambiguous but vivid threat, he lures in Martha, rechristening her as his own by declaring her Marcy May. It’s with this same potent power that Hawkes lures in the audience, making it easy to see how Martha abandoned autonomy to live within this guru’s seductive sway.

The narrative vacillates between Martha’s present, where she’s fled to her estranged sister’s vacation home in Connecticut, and her past, where things on the Upstate New York farm irreversibly slide from free-love hippie commune to Manson family madhouse. Durkin cleverly paints both portions of the films in the same washes of cool colors, leaving the audience momentarily unsure with each new scene where/when we are. Like Martha, we become anxious and uncertain. Her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her new brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) aim to be compassionate, but struggle to understand Martha’s unorthodox behavior and confounding boundaries. Before long, Martha begins to lash out as her flashbacks become more intense and her fear  of her former “family” finding her mounts. But is this paranoia? Durkin, who also wrote the script, is careful to keep things vague, never giving the audience an easy out or escape from the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere.

With Durkin’s smart restraint and deftly lurking pace, he creates something remarkable. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a taut character-driven drama about a cult, that never uses that word. It avoids teeth-gnashing and clothes rending theatrics in favor of understated performances and a naturalistic aesthetic. The result is a movie that creeps under your skin then claws its way out, leaving you ragged, raw and vulnerable by the end, much like its heroine. Martha’s anxiety and fear becomes infectious, and will linger with you long after the credits and their final haunting ballad vanish.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Friday, October 21st in select theaters.

Read our interview with Elizabeth Olsen here.

Read our interview with John Hawkes here.

Check out our interview with Sean Durkin and producers Josh Mond and Antonio Campos here.


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