>> Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Genre: Drama

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy

Director: Sean Durkin

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Runtime: 102 minutes

In Theatres: November 4, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

Rating: 2.80 (out of 4.00)

Grade: B-

Did You Know?

Elizabeth Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

 Martha Marcy May Marlene is an exercise in esoteric filmmaking and how to be too esoteric. Yes, there is such a thing.

Martha and Marcy May are the same person. You'll have to watch the movie to figure out the story behind Marlene, and why they all got mashed together to form the title. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a recent cult escapee who has trouble assimilating back into civilized society with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their lakehouse in Connecticut. The film opens with wide open landscape shots which serve to set up the emptiness of the story. There's a lot of space, there's a lot of silence, and there's barely any music. It's a quiet movie; both Martha's cult life and non-cult life are quiet, but in much different ways.

The cult, based on a remote farm in upstate New York, has a very odd power structure: the ringleader, a greasy mole of a man named Patrick (John Hawkes), keeps a menacing eye on every member and on all activities. Beneath him, the men hold dominion over the women, eating first at meals. There's drugging and raping of the recently admitted women, "to begin the cleansing." Most of the movie is spent just like that, with jaw agape, which is par for the course in movies with this type of thematic material. I sometimes feared that the jaw-dropping lines were only in there for shock value, or to provide a moment so uncomfortable that the audience had no choice but to let out a shocked, hesitant chuckle. There were quite a few of those, because since Martha is so damaged from her recent experience, she's out of practice on basic social practices and cues. Things that seem to make total sense to us -- like not curling up on the same bed where two people are making love -- are foreign to Martha. And the weird sexual tension between she and Ted? I didn't know what to make of it. I gleaned that there was supposed to be a parallel between Ted and Patrick, to the point where they even look distantly related, as if one went to a bougie private school while the other dropped out of his country public school in the third grade. There was a flashback-cut-to-present scene where Martha snapped back from a memory of intimacy with Patrick, immediately to running away from Ted, eventually kicking him down the stairs. Was Ted trying to touch Martha? Who knows. More on these vague would-be assumptions in a moment.

It's clear that Martha is a very fragile, damaged person. Her cult experience certainly has a big part in that. What bothers me is that just seems to be the tip of the dysfunction iceberg, yet Durkin seems completely unwilling to explore any further. Martha and Lucy have a lot of very generalized conversations about the way things were when they were growing up together, but the audience never really gets to read between the lines because the lines are so thick with smoke and mirrors and double meanings. It was hard to not feel like the director was relying on the audience to make assumptions based on what was being said; the only problem is that there wasn't enough information to make a definitive assumption. There could have been ten different possible scenarios based on a conversation, but we'll never know which assumption is the correct one, the one truest to Durkin's vision. It's like the cast and crew of the film are on the inside of a joke that they don't want to let anyone else in on, even the audience for whom the film is intended. As it turns out, that inside joke doesn't even seem all that funny.

It has to be said that every single person delivers an incredible performance. It's hard to believe that this is Elizabeth Olsen's first starring role. Paulson, Hawkes (especially Hawkes, dude could write the book on how to play creepy and silently menacing), even Dancy all committed to their roles and it paid off. I just wish Durkin had committed more to the audience than to his fictional band of weirdos and seemingly every other detail than the most obvious one. The cinematography was great, the script was sparse, yet effective, and there was only one nagging stone of a detail left unturned.

This is one of probably three movie screenings I've been to in life where the closing credits elicited a collective, "WHAT?" from every single audience member, even non-film critics. If this makes you want to pay the price of admission to this cinematic freak show of a film, go for it.


Martha Marcy Mae Marlene

this was a real nothing movie

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