MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, damaged young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) struggles to re-assimilate with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her brother in law Ted (Hugh Dancey) after fleeing an abusive cult where she had spent two years.
Review by Louise Keller:
There's a chilling undercurrent throughout this psychological thriller in which two realities become intertwined and confused. It's a star turn from Elizabeth Olsen, whose vulnerable presence and gripping performance impacts as the narrative with its jagged edges of paranoia unfolds. Sean Durkin, in his debut feature, impresses with a masterful screenplay and assured direction, making this an edge-of-seat experience.
In the opening sequences, we meet Martha (Olsen), a young girl living in a commune at a country property with basic facilities. There's a ritualistic routine in which the men eat first - in silence, followed by the women - also in silence. The pecking order is clear - it is the small number of men, headed by Patrick (Hawkes in true creepy form), a sinister grungy-type who instills guilt as part of his calling the shots. Sex is also part of the service the women are expected to give, but details about life in the commune are only given on a need-to-know basis as the story evolves.
The shift from the commune comes when the obviously troubled Martha runs away, ending up at the swish river-side Connecticut holiday home with her caring sister Lucy (Paulson) and brattish English husband Ted (Dancy). Seamlessly, Durkin merges the timeframes from one reality to another, as the present in Connecticut morphs back and forth into that of the commune. It is through this process that we learn the commune's dark side of life, when benign activities are replaced by some that are far less innocent. Death is good because fear brings Nirvana, we are told.
Away from the cult, Martha is struggling to cope, and engaging in inappropriate behaviour - like swimming naked and jumping into bed with Lucy and Ted, while they are having sex. At one point the confused Martha asks her sister if she ever can tell the difference between a memory and a dream? Durkin focuses the camera tightly on Martha's face much of the time, not allowing us to immediately see what is in the background. This means that we are constantly on edge, looking for signs as to which reality she is in, which adds greatly to the tension and our sense of uncertainty.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is as intriguing and confusing as its title; a splendidly unsettling film whose ambiguous ending is beautifully conceived.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If I were asked what is this film about, I'd have to reply: It's complicated. Resisting handy labelling, MMMM is challenging from the first time you read or see the title to the last, abrupt shot. The brief synopsis tells you almost nothing about the gripping emotional adventure that lies ahead. Yes, there is a young woman, Martha, superbly played by Elizabeth Olsen, who escapes from a cult community in the Catskills (as we later learn), Northwest of New York.
And perhaps you could argue that what happens inside the cult is not unfamiliar to anyone who is consuming modern media; cult stories are not new. But this is different: it's the deconstruction of the aftermath, from a victim's point of view.
Sean Durkin tells the story with flashbacks that are almost seamless continuations of Martha's present, always triggered by an action or an emotion. It's a language we quickly learn, and despite its risks, it has a powerful upside in building the drama. It also creates terrific cinematic texture with the contrast between the grungy environment of the commune and the smart middle class ambiance of Martha's safe haven at her sister's waterside weekender in Connecticut.
It also mirrors Martha's sense of uncertainty, as her perception shifts between her memory, dreams (bad ones) and reality, sometime confusing her as to which is which.
But these cinematic tools are used to explore the emotional and psychological labyrinth that has taken over Martha's being. Her experiences at the hands of cult leader Patrick (another riveting and chilling performance by John Hawkes of Winter's Bone fame) and the cloying, faux love of the commune are revealed gradually. Neither her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson in great form) nor her brother in law Ted (Hugh Dancy) understand what has happened to Martha - and Martha can understand it least of all.
These blockages in relationships and self awareness are the stuffing in the film, the essence of its mood and tone. It is not a rational explanation that Durkin is offering but a profile of Martha's shattered soul. He achieves his ambitions with the film, which is a movie for film lovers who can handle disturbing subjects about the human condition and do not feel the need to see a cute puppy in every film.
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MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (MA15+)
CAST: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause
PRODUCER: Antonio Campos, Patrick Cunnigham, Chris Maybach, Josh Mond,
DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin
SCRIPT: Sean Durkin
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jody Lee Lipes
EDITOR: Zachary Stuart-Pontier
MUSIC: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Juuriaans
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Chad Keith
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 2, 2012