Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene featured image

October 28, 2011

By Marc Glassman

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin, film director and writer
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), John Hawkes (Patrick), Sarah Paulsen (Lucy), Hugh Dancy (Fred), Brad Corbett (Watts), Christopher Abbott (Max), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), Louisa Krause (Zoe)

Winner: Best Drama, Sundance, 2011. Screened at Cannes.

Dark and intimate, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a subtle film that slowly brings the viewer into the convoluted, desperate mentality of a young woman who has been seduced by a cult. As played by Elizabeth Olsen—yes, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley—Martha is by turns charming, innocent sometimes; and then, with no warning, willful and self-destructive and angry. Like her sister Lucy (a nuanced performance by Sarah Paulsen), you want to believe that Martha is recovering from a grueling time away from civilized society but too many clues point her story into deeper waters.

In the opening scenes, we see Martha—called Marcy May by her friends—escaping from a farm, where a group of young people is working. When she gets to the nearest small town, Martha is so terrified that she can barely speak when she calls her sister. Taken to apparent safety by Luci, Martha clearly has a tough time adjusting to her surroundings—particularly her new and quite aggressive brother-in-law Fred.

Director-writer Sean Durkin’s story telling technique is highly influenced by classic modernist writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. He allows a free flow of scenes to play out, moving from past to present, while keeping a cool, seemingly objective tone. Gradually, Martha’s past few years are revealed and we see a confident young woman shift, by stages, into a follower of an oddly charismatic cult leader named Patrick.

John Hawkes, the angular mordantly compelling actor who achieved acclaim in the gritty HBO series Deadwood and the brilliant contemporary noir thriller Winter’s Bone, conveys a cult’s leader’s power to get into people’s heads and twist their mentality to serve his purpose. (It’s he who changes Martha’s name to Marcy May, a trick he plays with all of his new conquests to convey their new reality.)

Gradually, one realizes that the farm isn’t successful and Patrick’s followers have to resort to crime to sustain their apparently harmonious back-to-the-land lifestyle. Simultaneously, Martha’s grip on reality—tenuous despite Lucy’s best efforts—becomes undone.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a character study of a modern phenomenon—the well off, educated, twenty-something who has no drive or ambition and despises the excesses of the world around her. Pigeon holing someone is an old journalistic technique but the given wisdom, “At last, there’s an Olsen who can act,” seems to be true. Elizabeth Olsen plays the titular character with honesty and a surprising command of technique. You’ll be rooting for Martha—or Marcy May—to beat the odds and survive her ordeal.

Sundance’s jury gave Martha Marcy May Marlene its Best Drama award. Since then, Durkin’s film has played at top festivals—Cannes and TIFF. Yes, it has dark moments but Martha Marcy May Marlene is definitely worth seeing.

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