The hard to say Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting film which tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who after two years living in a cult escapes. Martha is picked up by her sister (Sarah Paulson), who she then joins with and her sister’s husband (Hugh Dancy) at their summer lake house retreat. We watch Martha as she re-adjusts to life outside the cult, and deals with what she has been through in the last two years.
The distinctive feature of the film is it’s dual narrative. Durkin seamlessly flicks between the present and the previous two years which Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has spent living in the cult; at times the characters literally reach into the scenes and across narratives. While impressive, at times this can be slightly confusing, as much is unsaid and left up to the audience to fill in the blanks.
At one point in the film Martha asks her sister if she’s ever had trouble telling the difference between a dream and a memory. It’s this question which is key to the film’s mystery and construction. As we follow Martha re-adjusting to life, it is often hard to tell what is real and what Martha is imagining. She has obviously been through a traumatic experience and that plays havoc with people’s mental state. A combination of Martha’s erratic behaviour and the constant swapping between the narratives leaves the audience with more questions than answers.
Much has been said in praise of Olsen’s performance, and it is well-earned praise. Olsen manages to appear very vulnerable and conveys the feeling of fear and uncertainty extremely well. Praise must also be given to John Hawkes who plays the cult leader Patrick with absolute bone-chilling creepiness. If you don’t get the chills when he plays a song just for Martha (or Marcy May as she is known in the cult), then you have no feelings.
Aspects of the narrative in the present day may annoy some people (as it did me). Much of the present day narrative centres around how Martha’s family deals with her re-assimilation into regular life. The way the family chooses to deal with Martha’s issues is perplexing and doesn’t seem realistic. Perhaps this is true of how people like her family would deal with the issue; her sister and brother-in-law are rather cold and seem to want to not believe what is right in front of them. For most people though, this behaviour will seem odd.
Overall Martha May Marcy Marlene is an impressive debut feature for director Sean Durkin; and a stellar break-out performance for actor Elisabeth Olsen. While aspects of the story may not work, the film successfully conveys the mindset of someone who doesn’t know what is normal or what real anymore. It will leave you feeling chilled.
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer(s): Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Runtime: 102 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 2nd 2012; New Zealand: March 15th 2012
(Note: this review was originally posted on my tumblr)