Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

There are certain things in life that are absolutely terrifying to me. These are things like cults, sexual abuse, and trauma-induced psychosis. Martha Marcy May Marlene spends 102 minutes swimming in these issues for a very powerful effect. The film opens somewhere in upstate New York. Young women are seen preparing for dinner. The men come in from a hard day of work, sit down at the table the women just set, and take their time eating while the women wait for their turn at the table. It's a different cultural conceit--an unexplained understanding that the participants seem comfortable with--that otherwise seems normal because the people behave normally. That is until one young woman sneaks out the next morning, runs through the woods, and has to hide from the pursuit of the other family members to complete her escape.

The young woman is Martha, known in the upstate community as Marcy May. She disappeared from her family in NYC two years ago and emerges unwilling to talk to her sister about anything that actually happened to her during her absence. She, too, has that veneer of normalcy until she does something odd.

The film unfolds in a series of contextually triggered flashbacks. A simple brush of a hand is enough to turn Martha back into Marcy May in her mind. Martha/Marcy May is our surrogate to take us into this cult and victim mentality that controlled her life for two years. She isn't opening up; we're forcing our way in. The difference is subtle at first, but opens itself up more and more as her sister and brother-in-law become increasingly alarmed by her behavior.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is writer/director Sean Durkin's debut feature-length film. He crafts a dark and profound look into the mind of a disturbed young woman. It does not feel forced or opportunistic. It just feels real. The fights she has with her real family in the second half of the film will feel all too familiar to anyone who did the wrong thing growing up. Durkin nails this concept in ways I did not think were possible.

One big strength to the film is the cinematography. Instead of setting this clear divide between Martha and Marcy May's lives, the look of the film refuses to paint one life as better than the other. The initial Marcy May scene is hazy--almost nostalgic looking--versus the initial Marcy scene's more vibrant color palette. However, from then on out, the intensity of the scene is purely contextual. A happy memory from her time in upstate New York will look even brighter than her initial rescue by her sister. It's a subtle and well-executed representation of Martha's mental state and one of the few hints as to how she could be pulled into this cult at all.

Unfortunately, for me, a few of the scenes tilted toward being too dark to tell what's happening. It's a stylistic decision to hide things that truly upset Martha about her past and present, but it tilts too far into darkness. There were four or five scenes that went into this limited light set-up. I thought only one actually benefited from that approach. The concept of shrouding Martha's darkest moments and psychological damage in a cloud of darkness is a good one; the execution was lacking.

The entire ensemble cast does solid work in this film. Elizabeth Olsen establishes herself with a beautifully nuanced and real performance as the titular character. John Hawkes is in his element, playing the charismatic and dangerous leader of the cult. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are perfect support for the character of Marcy playing her sister and brother-in-law, respectively. Even smaller roles played by actors like Brady Corbet and Lousia Krause, longer-standing members of the cult, are given great moments to shine. This is not flashy acting work that demands attention. It is acting that serves the script and rises or falls solely on the strength of the direction of this film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that needs to be experienced, not just seen. You need to open yourself up to a very disturbing ride that slowly sneaks up on you with a level of terror I haven't experienced in a theater in a long time. It's safest to categorize this film as a psychological drama, though horror, suspense, and thriller fans will not leave the theater disappointed. It is not a film you can just shake off after watching. It lingers and haunts you like Martha's memories of Marcy May.

Rating: 9/10

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