Cult favourite – Martha Marcy May Marlene review

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Starring Elizabeth OlsenJohn Hawkes, and Sarah Paulson. Directed by Sean Durkin. Rated MA. Originally published July 22, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Martha Marcy May Marlene arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 13, 2012.

If Winter’s Bone was just a little too chipper for your liking, perhaps you’d prefer the decidedly darker Martha Marcy May Marlene. Although the plots of these films are rather different (in the former, we deal with meth-cooking Mississippians; in the latter, we meet some creepy sex cultists) there are plenty of similarities between the two projects. Both made buzzy debuts at the Sundance Film Festival; both feature a startlingly excellent central performance from a young – heretofore unknown – actress; both feature terrifying turns from John Hawkes. I sincerely hope that Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene follows in the footsteps of its spiritual sibling, and goes on to collect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor (maybe this time, the overdue Hawkes can actually win it). (*Ed – Obviously this didn’t end up happening, but I maintain that the noms would have been deserved.)

That Best Actress contender is Elizabeth Olsen. Yes, she’s sister to Mary Kate and Ashley, but she seems cut from a different cloth entirely. The movie opens with Olsen living in a commune with a number of young women and men, led by Patrick (Hawkes). At this point in the film, her name is Marcy May, and she joins the ladies in preparing food for the fellas, waiting on the staircase for them to finish eating, and then enjoying their meal once the men have been satisfied. They all sleep in a big pile on the floor (and not the cute kind, like in Where the Wild Things Are). Marcy May makes a run for it one morning, and she nervously calls out her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come rescue her. To Lucy, Marcy May is Martha. She goes with Lucy to live with her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy); unwilling, or perhaps unable, to talk about the events that transpired at Patrick’s farmhouse. But as the days pass, Martha/Marcy May’s paranoia grows, and we witness through flashback some of the atrocities committed by Patrick, her co-culters, and herself.

Writer/director Sean Durkin makes a stunning feature film debut here, managing to convey the emotional turmoil within Martha/Marcy May in a truly cinematic way. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, or perhaps even a meaningless one, but Durkin understands how to use cinematic conventions to tell a story effectively. Consider all the lame psychological thrillers that think ‘shattered mirrors’ will suffice in making their pic both scary and meaningful. Durkin knows how to make his camera mimic Martha/Marcy May’s psyche, and similarly position the audience to feel like her, without us even noticing that we are being so expertly manipulated. The pacing of the film itself mirrors her unraveling; the scene transitions become like her dreams; the shot compositions become like her nightmares. As Martha/Marcy May struggles to understand what is real, what is fake, what happened, and what she merely imagined, Durkin offers the audience no respite. The film’s first few relatively calm (but still unsettling) moments are never revisited. Each time we return to Patrick’s commune, we bear witness to gradually more and more horrifying events.

Elizabeth Olsen has three aliases in this film (‘Marlene’ is a creepy one that I won’t spoil); each one representing a different time in her life. She is called upon to be many things: carefree, aloof, abused, hurtful, hurt, unhinged, totally serene, terrified, over-sexed, innocent. Her range is phenomenal, and her performance seems effortless. The same goes for Hawkes, who is not required to display such a range of feeling, but must still make his Patrick go from a comforting presence to a horrifying one with only a few minor emotional calibrations. He never raises his voice and he never chews the scenery. But you can sense him in every scene – even at the seemingly safe house of Lucy and Ted. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a deeply disturbing film about psychological trauma, with some of the finest performances of the year, and a final shot that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Some will call it abrupt. I say the film ends not a second too soon. But that doesn’t mean I’m not curious as to what happens next.

4.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 13, 2012.

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