Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director(s): Sean Durkin
Writer(s): Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy and Louisa Krause
Reviewed by: Christine Lambert on
Release Date(s)Oct 21, 2011 - Limited
Making his feature film directorial début, Sean Durkin has taken the subject of cults and their ramifications and written a script that is both terrifying and compelling at the same time.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to silently escape from the house she has been living in for the last couple of years, only to be chased through the woods nearby. Ravenous, she manages to make it to a diner where she later gets tracked down by one of the cult members, Watts (Brady Corbett). She doesn’t leave with him and waits until he is gone to call her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy hasn’t seen her sister in a while and takes her to the lake home she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The home is only three hours from where the cult is located, a fact Martha hides by telling her sister she’s been living with a boyfriend all this time.
Martha Marcy May Marlene travels between the present day at the lake house with her sister and brother-in-law and memories of the cult Martha left behind. Scenes move seamlessly into one another so well that one can be taken off guard while watching, questioning where in her life that scene takes place. And credit should be given to Durkin for using this technique. Often in life the most obscure thing can cause us to travel back in our personal histories to memories thought to be long forgotten. In Martha’s case, her life as a cult member is still fresh in her life and it is understandable that haunting flashes of that time would invade her mind.
These flashes to the recent past tell Martha’s story of her life in the cult. The Manson family is clearly an influence in this film. The leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), tells Martha that she looks like a Marcy May and that was the birth of her cult name. Patrick welcomes Martha to the home saying “it is as much yours as it is ours”. Everyone has a role in the house and everyone contributes to its up-keep.
If the only reason to see this film is the performances, it would be well worth the time spent. Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Contrary to her sisters’ start, Olsen has made such an incredible impression with her performance that one quickly forgets her pedigree. Her take on being an ex-cult member is riveting. She portrays psychological damage and confusion so well that you begin to think the film is a documentary. Olsen conveys her plight to deal with her new surroundings as she struggles with the memories that will not leave her alone. She may have escaped physically from the cult, but mentally she is still in that house.
Another great performance is that of Hawkes. Hawkes plays Patrick with the perfect pitch of what cult leaders are made of: charismatic, intelligent, manipulative, cunning and charming. These are also characteristics of a sociopath, which Patrick clearly is. Hawkes’ portrayal of Patrick is one of the greatest performances of a “villain” that film has seen in a while. In one scene, Patrick takes a guitar from another cult member and in front of everyone sings a song to Martha. This moment and song come across as very sweet, but only for a moment. What underlies his performance is a sinister act used to further indoctrinate a young girl into a dysfunctional world. He is able to tap into Martha’s vulnerabilities quickly and use her insecurities and longing for love against her. The beauty of Hawkes’ performance is that he doesn’t show the typical one note of movie villains, he shows the rainbow of emotions and tactics that a psychopath would use in order to gain the control he desires. Physically, Patrick may not seem intimidating, but mentally, it is evident that he has every member wrapped around his finger.
Paulson and Dancy play their frustrations with Martha in different ways. Lucy feels guilty that she wasn’t around for Martha more and blames herself for whatever had happened to her in those missing years. Paulson plays her anguish well as we see her fly from guilt to compassion to defensiveness when dealing with her husband’s concerns. Paulson’s character wants to understand why Martha acts strangely, but because she hasn’t been given the full story, Lucy tries hard to find answers for her.
Dancy’s character is clearly frustrated with Martha’s erratic behaviour and rightly wants her to get help. Dancy’s portrayal of Ted shows what we have all experienced at least once in our lives: when faced with an odd or difficult event, we feel like we are the only one who sees it. Dancy tries to be patient, but this soon runs thin and tensions in the house arise quickly.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an excellent film, no doubt. The artistry and talent involved is inspiring for film makers and lovers of film alike. Watch Martha Marcy May Marlene for the artistry and the story telling, even as it takes your mind on a journey to some very dark places. Where does the name Marlene fit into this story? Do yourself a favour, watch the film and find out.