Reviews

Martha Marcy May Marlene

5

Mad, mixed-up, mind-boggling, magnificent.

There are few things more unsettling than a chase scene in which you sense it doesn’t matter if the quarry gets away. In the opening moments of writer/director Sean Durkin’s mesmerising feature debut, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) makes her escape from a commune, pursued through the woods by anonymous figures, but there’s no sense of triumph in her success.

However physically far away she gets it becomes clear, through Durkin’s slippery camera and Olsen’s glazed, darting eyes, that this is not a girl who has broken free. Taken in by her affluent, married older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), there’s a telling early exchange in which Martha asks, “How far are we?” “From what?” comes the response.

“Yesterday.” It’s a disjointed question that suggests something is off in her view of the world, but the answer in narrative terms is that we’re never very far from yesterday. Durkin slips seamlessly between time frames – in a single cut we move from present to past, from reality to memory, from Martha to Marcy May (the commune’s name for her.)

None of these narrative tricks are done for effect, but used to illustrate our heroine’s increasingly fragmented mind. As past and present become more blurred, she slips further into her memories of what we swiftly realise wasn’t a harmless hippie commune, but a physically and psychologically abusive cult. Playing the de facto face of the commune’s evils, John Hawkes’ Patrick expands on the menace that netted him an Oscar nod in Winter’s Bone.

“I know people have abandoned you your whole life,” he tells Martha calmly, and though we learn little about her origins it’s clear he’s playing on just the right vulnerabilities. Olsen is a wonder, playing someone who’s numbed to the point of catatonia without ever lacking emotion.

She deftly conveys the warring impulses at work behind Martha’s placid surface – for all she’s suffered, there’s a part of her that’s drawn irresistibly back to the place where she felt part of something.

Her inability to let go of Marcy May, coupled with her mounting paranoia (which culminates during a chilling yuppie party) creates a lingering dread that carries us right up to the disquietingly ambiguous final shot.

For all that this is an “escape from a cult” movie, there’s really been no escape at all.

Verdict:

A stunningly assured, elegantly crafted and profoundly disturbing portrait of a traumatised mind, MMMM rockets Durkin and Olsen to the top of the ‘ones to watch’ pile.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • FBGRoberts

      Jan 23rd 2012, 11:30

      The grammar in this article is less than satisfactory for what is likely to be a popular read.

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    • MikeyRix

      Jan 23rd 2012, 12:11

      Wow, has your Caps Lock tab taken the day off, guys?!

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    • FBGRoberts

      Jan 23rd 2012, 13:52

      Sticky keys, perhaps :)

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    • MattMaytum

      Jan 23rd 2012, 14:44

      Ahem, those rogue capital letters have now been sorted.

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    • joker16

      Jan 24th 2012, 2:55

      5 stars? Who are you kidding?

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    • ChrisWootton

      Jan 24th 2012, 14:47

      Have you seen it then joker? If so, what would you give it? John Hawkes rarely puts a foot wrong in his performances.. I'd be up for seeing it just for him

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    • joker16

      Jan 24th 2012, 16:40

      @Chris Yes I have seen it, I live in the States so we got it months ago. I'd give it a 3 / 5. Hawkes is certainly good but on the whole it's nothing to write home about.

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    • ChrisWootton

      Jan 25th 2012, 12:31

      Ah man, I'm jealous of that! Sucks we have to wait so long. Cheers dude, appreciate the feedback, always good to get a few other opinions.

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    • ecsange

      Jan 27th 2012, 22:51

      Months ago? I'm not sure how I missed this film. It looks like the type of film that I would enjoy immensely. I'll have to look for it when it comes out on DVD. Elaine, Book Marketing Manager, Booktrope Publsihing, @inkdipped

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    • jamieneish

      Feb 3rd 2012, 15:26

      5

      Here's my review - http://emptyscreens.com/2012/02/01/review-martha-marcy-may-marlene-2011/

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