Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Martha Marcy May Marlene has been the indie darling of 2011 since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January and being screened at Cannes. It is the first feature film from director Sean Durkin, who won the U.S. Directing Award at Sundance. It would have been an outstanding effort had the film, whose screenplay was also written by Durkin, not lost so much traction in the latter stages. Durkin's No Country For Old Men-esque ending ruins the artistic merits of the film. He is lucky to have cast Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley). Olsen delivers an emotionally raw performance in her first major film role. Olsen plays a woman trying to readjust to society after escaping from a cult, though the term cult is technically never used in the film. John Hawkes, who was the best part of the otherwise over-hyped Winter's Bone, is disturbingly evil as the cult leader. The film does a great job presenting Martha's inability to reconnect with the world after living as Marcy May for two years, but the role of Marlene is a little less clear, probably owing to the fact that the film is a little convoluted and mishandled in the last half hour. I was also very impressed with the acting talents of Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, as Martha's sister and brother-in-law. Sean Durkin did a beautiful job casting the film and it is a shame that the film, which started so wonderfully and had so much potential, just fell flat at the end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting (and frustrating) psychological drama. Elizabeth Olsen's performance alone is worth seeing, and I hope other viewers are better equipped to ignore the film's poorly-constructed finale.

Martha (Olsen) has spent the last two years living on a compound in the Catskills Mountain region of New York State. She was introduced to the cult by a friend and was drawn into their embrace by a sense of belonging. Patrick (Hawkes), the cult leader, renamed her Marcy May, and she was responsible for taking care of the home and the children. The women were not allowed to eat their meals until after the men had finished. These women were also forced to sleep in shared quarters - which means Martha only had a fraction of a mattress to herself. One morning she just runs out the front door, and although she is chased and eventually found by one of the men, she calls her sister Lucy (Paulson), who welcomes Martha into her home. Lucy is spending time at the summer home in Connecticut she shares with her husband Ted (Dancy). Martha finds it difficult to readjust to modern life. Lucy bends over backwards to help her and Ted does not immediately object to her strange behaviour. Martha becomes increasingly paranoid that Patrick is going to come after her and Lucy finds it even more difficult to reconnect with her sister. Martha's return to society is contrasted with flashbacks to her time with the cult, highlighting just how different her life was and how difficult it will be to assimilate. Martha does not tell Lucy or Ted about her whereabouts for the last two years and this makes it more difficult for her sister and brother-in-law to accept her behaviour.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intriguing and haunting story. Many films have dealt with cults, but the story of an escapee attempting to reenter society is virgin territory. While the film does offer a description of Martha's time on the compound, it does not really detail the emotional abuse she suffered. Her wounds are more visible when we see just how hard it is for her to reunite with her former self. The film has much stronger ties to stories about multiple personalities, as Martha and Marcy May are absolutely two women in the same body. The story and screenplay are strong for the first two thirds of the film, until Sean Durkin finds himself trying to turn the film into an art-house mess. Luckily, Elizabeth Olsen's performance is so strong that viewers are able to empathize with her character. Martha is so quiet and reserved, yet through flashbacks we realize just how damaged she is. We never learn exactly why she joined the cult (besides a sense of belonging), but it is clear why she chose to escape. John Hawkes does not have a very meaty role, but he sinks his teeth into the role of Patrick. There is something extremely frightening about his smile. It is regrettable that the film hits a wall at the end, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is still a haunting story about a psychologically damaged woman. Elizabeth Olsen works wonders with her expressive eyes, and the film would be a much less powerful story without her standout performance.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

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