Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Running Time: 2 hrs
Release Date: October 28, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: A young woman (Olsen) has difficulty determining what is real or imaginary after she escapes from a cult.
WHO’S IT FOR?: This movie might move a little slower than your typical American horror movie, but it’s even more terrifying. If Inception can hook in any audience with its gray areas of dream/reality, so should Martha Marcy May Marlene. If you just let this quiet movie play out, it will grab hold of you, and intimidate you. Prepare to join the Martha Marcy May Marlene cult.
EXPECTATIONS: A wordy title and some festival buzz, that’s all I had to go on before sitting down for this one. Oh, and the debut of a third Olsen.
Elizabeth Olsen as Martha: Whatever heavy duty work director Durkin can’t control without being physically on-screen, Olsen has on her shoulders, and they are new ones (this is her true “debut”) to boot. She can carry the audience’s attention through any scene, and she makes her anxieties incredibly palpable to us. You can tell she’s trying to make it big it with this one, but perhaps someone’s trying too hard here. Some of her moments involving focus on her body, including nudity, feel unnecessary. Like it’s being accompanied by Durkin’s desire to shoot her like a movie star, and not just a regular Martha, per se. It’s a great debut that also feels a bit too much like a visual resume (although I doubt she was half as good in How the West Was Fun.)
John Hawkes as Patrick: The key word with Hawkes here is intimidation. Playing the leader of the cult that Martha finds herself wandering around in, Hawkes is quite creepy. More than that, he’s extremely intimidating to us, despite the “love” he has for his cult members, especially Martha. While portraying a strange height of evil, he is also shown to represent love, and community. Hawkes has created such a great balance of sweetness and strangeness that even thinking about this guy’s background could give me nightmares (the same goes for Brady Corbet’s character as well). Who knows what Patrick has done before Martha, and to people just like her? There is bound to be a lot of praise for Olsen’s performance come awards season, but Hawkes shouldn’t be forgotten about. Especially if the same human being can go from this kind of character to something like custodian Roger in Contagion.
Sarah Paulson as Lucy: Of all the elements in this movie, Paulson’s character might be the weakest. As the sister to Martha, Lucy seems unnaturally cold. It’s more like Durkin is trying to make a point with this character, instead of let her seem as authentic to the audience as her sister.
TALKING: Durkin’s script withholds a lot from us, but it does give us the proper amount of knowledge to get us fully involved with the story’s many components (relationships, etc.) There isn’t a scene where everything is laid out by a monologue or even discussion; the dialogue here is spare, with things preferably laid out visually most of all.
SIGHTS: With its very successful marriage of long shots and editing, Martha Marcy May Marlene might be one of the tightest visual experiences at the movies this year. Even with the movie’s tendency to very long cold shots, no shot feels overlong. Durkin takes a bit out of the Friday the 13th finale playbook and uses slow zooms to create a significant sense of uneasiness to shots that would be otherwise relaxing with their location’s stillness.
SOUNDS: Along with its still visuals, this is a mostly quiet movie. Music hardly makes an appearance, sans a solo performance by John Hawkes as he plays “Marcy’s Song” by Jackson C. Frank. There’s a great moment of sound mixing towards the end of the movie, when the paranoia has reached its peak.
BEST SCENE: The shot in which Martha is swimming, and then “that guy” is possibly sitting there watching her. Wow.
ENDING: Yeah, good luck shaking that one off for a few days. It’s the absolute worst/best place this story could have ended.
QUESTIONS: You can read my interview with director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen here.
REWATCHABILITY: Now that some time has passed since I first saw it, I would like to see this again. After seeing it however, I jotted down, “Probably not, but that’s a good thing … don’t want to get those visuals (or lack thereof) in my head. It wouldn’t be good for my already poor sleeping.” I guess this movie does eventually release” you. But I almost slept with the light on after seeing it.
Very much like Michael Haneke’s praised “thrillers,” (such as Cache), Martha doesn’t seem to be inspired by any specific desire to make a horror film. Yet, with its impeccable subtleties and ruthless psychological work, Martha Marcy May Marlene still provides scary movies with an important lesson as to what a fearful cinematic experience should exactly be like.
This movie respects its audience’s intelligence, and their patience. Nothing makes immediate sense, or sometimes, nothing makes sense at all. Martha also acknowledges the presence of our imagination when we watch movies, and that our natural inclination to fill in the gaps of certain events can actually be used against us. With only a couple nudges of violent moments, the real disturbing aspects of this highly psychological movie are put together in our own minds. In its many strange moments that provide near unbearable tension (created in part by perfectly paced zooms), the movie gives us just a whisper of fear, and then leaves us in the dark – completely helpless, and crippled by its intimidation that (wonderfully) forces us to submit.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10