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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

DVD Cover (Fox Searchlight)
Genres: Psychological Drama, Thriller
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Director:
Sean Durkin Sean Durkin
Starring:
Elizabeth Olsen Elizabeth Olsen
Christopher Abbott Christopher Abbott
Brady Corbet Brady Corbet
Hugh Dancy Hugh Dancy
Maria Dizzia Maria Dizzia

6.9 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by bluemeanie
Added: November 19, 2011
Nothing grieves me like having to say - "I was disappointed in this film."

This film has been one of the most talked about of the year and it has plenty going for it: that universal indie buzz that starts at film festivals and carries over to the internet; a remarkable breakthrough performance from Elizabeth Olsen; another fine supporting turn from the great John Hawkes. It's the stuff awards season was invented for; and I think all of it is just a little overblown. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a good film - occasionally great - but ends up weighed down by its own tricks and techniques. And, in the end, it was all a little uneventful.

MARTHA is the sister of Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who is married to Ted (Hugh Dancy). One day Lucy gets a call from her sister, having not seen her in two-years. Martha tells her that she has been living with her boyfriend in the Catskills and her behavior comes across as abnormal even from the very beginning. MARCY MAY is the name given to Martha by Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of an odd cult-like group of friends who call themselves 'the family'. It's basically three men and numerous women living together with bizarre rules and restrictions on what they can and can't do. Marcy May quickly fits in with them and becomes a bonded member. MARLENE is the name that she uses whenever anyone calls the house - you can watch it for yourself to discover that secret.

This film is told through flashbacks - director Sean Durkin blends scenes in the present with Martha and her sister with flashbacks to her days on the farm as Marcy May. Some times we have to really pay attention to figure out just what time-frame we're dealing with. This is a simple, yet clever, trick that works for the most part and helps keep us interested in a story that intentionally moves along at a very deliberate pace. Most of the film deals with Martha and her attempts to adjust to normal life having been secluded for so long with the group. It also deals with her paranoia as she feels members of the group are after her. The ending of the film (which I shall not spoil) is both expected and unexpected, both understandable and unbelievable - and just a tad infuriating.

As you might have already heard, Elizabeth Olsen (sister to Mary Kate and Ashley) is quite remarkable here and provides one of the finest breakthrough performances in recent memory. She is totally believable as this mentally confused and distraught girl and she finds those balances of instability and really works them. John Hawkes also gives another stellar performance as the leader of the cult, a frighteningly calm and calculated man who used very subtle manipulation much in the same way Manson exercised his control over his followers. It's difficult not to draw the comparisons with Manson, but the character of Patrick isn't as assertive - he lets his people make up their own minds, to some extent, and makes them feel like they are the ones in control of their own lives.

The pacing, as intentional as it was, didn't work for me here. The editing techniques helped but I just kept waiting for someone to happen and - ultimately - it never did. This subject matter was so interesting and these characters were so engaging that I really wanted to see them do something. There are a couple of scenes on the farm that were really well-handled but they don't really lead to anything. We never get any solid answers about the group, i.e. what they're doing, why they're doing it. We don't get any answers about the John Hawkes character and how he became so influential amongst these people. As I said - this was a choice from script to screen and it was just a choice I could not reconcile to make myself enjoy the film more.

At the end of the day, I just think "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a bit overrated. It's not a masterpiece. It's not close to amazing. There's a film out there now called "Take Shelter" which is very similar in technique and tone that is a far superior piece of filmmaking not getting near enough attention. See this film for the performances and see it if you like this type of low-key filmmaking (and I generally do) but I found "Martha Marcy May Marlene" to be all set-up and no pay-off and a bit like "Blair Witch" for the indie buzz sect. 6/10.
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