Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Andrew Simpson on 2 Feb 2012

Already established as a critical darling, Martha Macy May Marlene is the latest American indie to make its way to the UK via Sundance. Sean Durkin’s stylish, controlled debut about a young woman’s escape from a dangerous cult features a potent combination of dark atmosphere and committed performances, with the latter provided by newcomer and star-in-waiting Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sibling of the famous Twins has rightfully made hay for her performance, a portrayal of a survivor that is rarely less than magnetic. It is almost enough to disguise what is an ultimately insubstantial if bracing piece of cinema.

Olsen plays Martha, a young twenty-something that turns up at her wealthy sister’s plush lake house having apparently been missing for more than two years. Exhibiting increasingly strange behaviour whilst refusing to discuss her previous whereabouts, the film elliptically shifts from one timeframe to another, offering glimpses of her former life on a strange, quasi-Buddhist communal farm run by the alternately intimate and intimidating Patrick (John Hawkes), and marshaled by intense young convert Watts (Brady Corbert).

Transitioning between these episodes, Durkin draws parallels between the oppressive formality of bourgeois society and the psychological control of commune life, all anchored around Martha’s spiraling mental state. Using the camera to make even the ordinary seem unnerving, Durkin successfully creates a lingering sense of dread, illuminating Martha’s need to escape both her upbringing and the very frightening new world in which she finds herself. As Martha’s mind begins to unravel, the film reveals more of her life under Patrick’s watchful control, and the lengths to which his group will go to maintain their existence and power over their members.

But if Martha Marcy May Marlene possesses all the atmosphere and personnel to create something truly striking, it ultimately lacks the desire to take its premise further. Instead of electing to say more about its heroine, it instead opts for a slow and predictable revelation that the basis for Martha’s paranoia is all too real. The comparisons of two supposedly oppressive worlds is ultimately leaden, and in choosing suspense over any further development of Martha’s crumbling mind, the result is an admittedly tense, yet less interesting, psychological thriller.

The haziness surrounding Martha’s experience – and her time on the farm in particular – is never resolved, and ultimately serves to undermine Martha Macy May Marlene as a psychological portrait. The performance of Olsen, effortlessly moving between playful girlishness, catatonia and hysterical paranoia, is remarkable, and in John Hawkes’ display of more of the strange menace that characterized his Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, and an impressive Sarah Paulson as Martha’s self possessed sister, lie the building blocks of a richer, more lingering tale of indoctrination. Durkin has the  tools to create something extraordinary, but seems more in love with the feel than the purpose. The result is a startling if ultimately unenlightening portrait of a woman in trouble.


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