Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]
Director: Sean Durkin
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Runtime: 120 Minutes

Ever wanted to peer into the mind of a disillusioned cult member? I can’t think of a better film that presents this ability than Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins) stars as Martha, a young girl who has fled a farmhouse cult in the Catskills. With no one else to turn to, she goes to a pay phone and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives three hours away. Despite not having communicated in at least two years, Lucy drops what she is doing, picks her up and brings her back to her vacation home. Upon arriving, it is clear that the difference between the two sisters is like night and day. Lucy and her rich husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), are very well off but live a hectic lifestyle. From her two years on the farm, Martha has developed some bizarre habits and has trouble fitting in with the norms of society.

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

The movie dives directly into Martha’s mind, as we are shown interwoven clips from present day (at the lake house) as well as her time in the cult. At the farmhouse, the group’s leader, Patrick (the always incredible John Hawkes), has such a commanding presence that he makes everyone feel as if they are living the good life. There is a sense of community within them that brings them all together, even as Patrick demands unreasonable things from them. It’s frightening to watch all of this first hand, especially as most of the cult members are innocent young girls. This shit happens in real life, yet it’s something we don’t really see or hear about until tragedy strikes.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow burn that moves at a very deliberate pace. While intriguing for the most part, there were moments in the second half where I felt things dragged a bit. The movie probably didn’t need to run the full two hours, but it was hard not to get entranced with Sean Durkin’s direction. The cuts between present and past were seamless, feeling like one long, flowing thought in Martha’s mind.

Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

One thing that will be a huge issue for some viewers is the movie’s ending. I won’t discuss specifics for fear of spoilers, but man, talk about a polarizing conclusion. It’s something you will either love or hate, and my theater’s reaction was decidedly to the latter. Frankly, it pissed me off at first as well, but I grew to like it. It’s one of those endings that really makes you think, and it definitely succeeded in getting everyone talking about it afterward.

While the film has some aspects that won’t please everyone, it is still a very moving experience that showcases a rather interesting character study. It was a real treat to see Elizabeth Olsen step out from her famous siblings’ shadows and put together a truly powerful performance. This girl has big things in her future, folks. It was also awesome to see John Hawkes in another major role, as his performance gave me flashbacks to his memorable role as Teardrop in last year’s Winter’s Bone.

Is Martha Marcy May Marlene essential viewing? No, but it’s a well-made film that shows that both Durkin and Olsen have big things in their futures.


5 thoughts on “Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]

  1. Scott Lawlor says:

    Awesome!! ANother film I missed due to running out of travel budget for LFF, luckily it is showing at my home towns festival in a couple of weeks!! I can’t wait to see it.

    7/10 is good enough for me to want to go see it for sure!!

    Great write up Eric!!

  2. paolocase says:

    I totally understand your apprehensions with this film, as have I. But I’m content with this movie, especially with Hawkes as Patrick, arguably a more complex character than Teardrop in Winter’s Bone.

    • Eric says:

      Totally agree about Hawkes. The man is on fire with his roles lately, and the progression from Teardrop to this movie’s cult leader feels completely natural. Glad to hear you enjoyed this film. Thanks for stopping by!

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