Cannes Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

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Martha Marcy May Marlene review
Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene received a lot of buzz out of the Sundance Film Festival, much of it aimed at its lead, Elizabeth Olsen, younger and far more talented sister to the twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. I’m happy to say the appreciation for Olsen is deserved, but the film I’m still not entirely sold on. Where the film truly succeeds is in its tight editing and deliberately ambiguous ending, but the reason for it all is still a bit of a blur.

If you’re confused by the title, don’t worry, I think it’s just that long and quixotic to ensure marketing it is damn near impossible, but the story centers on Martha (Olsen), a girl in her early twenties that finds herself caught up in an abusive cult in upstate New York. Renamed “Marcy May” she’s raped and virtually brainwashed as she falls under the control of a misogynist leader played by an effectively creepy John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone). But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, the film doesn’t play as a straightforward narrative.

The story bounces back and forth in time, and begins with Martha fleeing through the woods and ultimately being picked up by her older sister (Sarah Paulson). Free of her confines Martha is visibly afraid but won’t share her story with her sister or her sister’s husband (Hugh Dancy) while spending time at their lakeside home in Connecticut.

Martha’s fear of those she’s run from and her learned behavior throws a wrench in her relationship with her sister, whom she hasn’t seen or talked to since running off two years ago. Whether she’s jumping into the lake fully nude for a swim or curling up in their bed as they’re having sex, Martha clearly has issues, which is also where the film opens itself up to scrutiny.

Martha shows serious signs of trauma, but her sister and brother-in-law never press too hard for more information although there are times when they really should. On the other hand, they don’t treat her with kid gloves, often verbally attacking and judging her for her behavior. This can appear to be a contradiction by some, bad communication by others and may in fact contribute to a larger truth Martha has keyed into about her sister that I won’t spoil here. Ultimately it’s a matter of how you choose to interpret the relationship which is clearly fractured, but to what extent is left unsure.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Elizabeth Olsen. Beautiful and with a proper womanly shape instead of just another Hollywood stick figure, Olsen is a talent we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the future if she can manage to key in the right roles. She’s got an honesty to her delivery and her eyes are active and deep, allowing you to be moved by just a glance. She delivers real emotion on screen, making her easy to care for.

Paulson and Dancy are also strong, though their characters are really the question mark of the film. I believe I have convinced myself on how to entirely interpret their characters, but I’d have to see the film again to be sure.

First time feature film writer and director Sean Durkin purposely leaves a lot of the motivations of his characters up in the air so you can arrive at your own conclusions. It’s a risky bet, but in the end I think it pays off.

I can’t quite explain why this film needs to exist or why the story must be told, but it is strangely compelling mostly due to its honest approach. There’s an aura to this film that could eventually make it a film to own and watch over and over again, but it could just as easily become a feature you watch once or twice and never again revisit. It’s a hard film to figure and while I accept the challenge, I’m still not sure if I am giving it too much credit or not enough.

GRADE: B-

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