Top positive review
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Could be even better with repeat viewings
on March 4, 2012
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Drama, 102 minutes
Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes
I don't like to read reviews before I see a film for the first time, but my curiosity was piqued when so many critics named Martha Marcy May Marlene among their favorite films from 2011.
For some reason, I expected the story to be about a woman with multiple personality disorder. That wasn't the case, but identity is one of the main themes.
This is a film that will alienate a lot of potential viewers. The plot is non-linear and often transitions quickly from Martha's memories to her present reality. There's also a lot of nudity and a small amount of sex. Both are essential to the plot.
Martha (Olsen) is in her early 20s and we see her join a cult in the first five minutes of the film. She's uncertain of her role at first, but soon begins to feel like part of the community. The cult is led by Patrick (Hawkes) and he is quietly persuasive. He gradually asserts his will over the other cult members and sleeps with the women. He thinks that Martha looks more like a Marcy May, so that becomes her name while she is a member of the cult.
The story deals with Martha's attempt to rejoin society after she decides to escape from the cult. She makes a phone call to her older sister, Lucy (Paulson), who picks her up and invites her to stay with her and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The scene involving the phone call is accompanied by some disquieting music reminiscent of a David Lynch film. In fact, with Martha seemingly capable of almost anything, you won't feel comfortable at any point in the film. You're not supposed to.
Martha has no idea of how to behave in normal society. She's used to sleeping in a room filled with other cult members and feels isolated when she's alone. Her time as a member of the cult has also affected the way she eats and drinks. She thinks nothing of swimming naked or walking in when her sister is having sex. This is perfectly acceptable behavior in her mind after her recent experiences.
The film regularly shows a scene in the present and then cuts to a scene in the recent past to illustrate the difference between Martha's two worlds. I know plenty of friends who would be irritated by the choice to tell the story in such a manner, but I think it works. It reminds me of Memento in some ways because Martha's experiences feel more immediate if we see things from her viewpoint.
I also found myself thinking about the lifestyles we choose. Lucy and Ted are typical of most people. They judge success in terms of money and possessions and take great pride in their house. When Martha says it's too big for two people, they explain that they like to entertain. They clearly want to be viewed as successful by their friends. That point is highlighted when they plan a party. Lucy dresses Martha in some of her clothes and fixes her hair. She tells Martha she looks beautiful. But the reason she does it is not to make Martha feel special, but to show her friends how wonderful her younger sister is.
There's a sense of unease throughout the film because it's possible that the cult could look for Martha. She even asks at one point how far away their house is from the place Lucy picked her up. Does she fear being recaptured, or does she have some other purpose in mind and is wondering how far she will have to travel to rejoin them?
I think that's more than enough information about the plot, except to say that the conclusion is completely open-ended. You'll have to make up your own mind about Martha's future. I haven't mentioned who Marlene is, but it's fairly obvious when you watch the film.
The acting is particularly convincing. Hawkes does a great job of quietly asserting his authority over the group and even sings a song for Marcy May. Olsen delivers an outstanding breakthrough performance and will surely pick up some other good roles because of this film. Along with Ellen Page, she'll be a popular choice when a movie requires a character in her early 20s.
I found myself thinking about the film the day after I saw it and that's usually a good sign. I think it's one of those stories which will assume greater significance on repeat viewings and I'm interested to see where Sean Durkin takes us with his next project.