'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Review

Elisabeth Olsen in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' (Review)

Anyone who is interested in a subtle, yet challenging, character drama with stand-out performances and some truly beautiful camerawork, the film is sure to deliver a thought-provoking time.

The only thing that many moviegoers have probably heard about the indie drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is that it features a starring performance from the "other" Olsen sister, Elizabeth Olsen. While it might be hard to imagine anything but kid-friendly comedies as well as tabloid headlines from anyone baring the Olsen name, Elizabeth Olsen's filmography will tell you a lot about the kind of acting she's interested in.

Until 1996, most of her performances were little more than cameos in Olsen twin films - then, this year, Elizabeth resurfaced with six indie projects on the horizon (two of which already made a lot of positive noise on the film festival circuit).

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the first of those two films to hit theaters and was written and directed by freshman filmmaker Sean Durkin. As mentioned, the movie has already seen its share of award nominations - but is the success of Martha Marcy May Marlene the result of over-stuffed indie hype or genuinely sharp and thought-provoking filmmaking that can be enjoyed by mainstream audiences?

In the case of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the answer is especially easy - since the movie is by far one of the most fascinating and beautifully shot films of 2011. As a result of the combined talents of Durkin, Olsen, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, Martha Marcy May Marlene lives-up to the festival hype and delivers a masterful combination of visual artistry and gut-wrenching story beats. That said, unlike many films that rely on a rich mythology or eye-popping special effects, Durkin's film is surprisingly subtle.

WARNING: If you're mostly sold on Martha Marcy May Marlene and are merely looking for a reviewer to give you a final push into the theater, I'd encourage you to stop reading. While that might normally be counter-intuitive, for anyone with an interest in a simple but powerful indie character-drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene is worth the price of admission - and anything you learn about the film (by reading story details or watching the trailer) could definitely detract a bit from the experience. This isn't to say that the film has a lot of twists and turns - because it doesn't; however, going in as blank as possible will no doubt add heft to some of the more challenging aspects of the storyline.

Elisabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

That said, for anyone who is still interested in knowing what the film is about, the Martha Marcy May Marlene story follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who abandons her life in the rural Catskill Mountains - where she was a member of a cult - and reunites with her high-strung sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Structurally, the story intercuts back and forth from Martha's troubles readjusting to the real world and flackbacks to the time she spent in the cult - as she grapples with her fear of retribution and longing for the cult's leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).

While the very mention of the word cult will no doubt cause some moviegoers to imagine the kind of extremist caricatures that dominate the cinescape, Martha's journey is exceptionally authentic - and finds a sharp balanced between near-tender and downright horrifying moments. The story will no doubt have moviegoers hoping Martha runs as far as she can from Patrick and the other "family members" but the narrative also makes it easy to understand, in spite of all the frightening things that happen, why Martha still misses the place.

Olsen delivers one of the best performances of the year as Martha - successfully conveying authenticity in a number of bizarre moments of post-cult confusion. Also, much like the larger story, the actress manages to make life in the cult believable. Instead of merely appearing glazed-over, as we often imagine people in this type of situation, Martha is very alive, and even delighted, for much of her time with Patrick and the other members of his "family."

Elisabeth Olsen and John Hawkes in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
John Hawkes as Patrick in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Aside from Martha, the success of the film hinges heavily on Hawkes' portrayal of Patrick - who, unsurprisingly (given the actor's pedigree), once again delivers a standout performance that will have his name circulating during awards season. Without question, Patrick is a horrifying monster but in spite of all of his calculated manipulation, sexual abuse, and violent behavior, Hawkes manages to deliver a performance that will cause audiences to routinely forget these actions aren't normal - while at the same time, much like Martha, living in total fear of what Patrick might do next.

Considering all of the different complexities in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin shows a surprisingly adept directorial hand - managing to walk a shockingly difficult, but extremely subtle, tightrope between clouding the film in over-arching paranoia and fear. Instead of relying heavily on a cliche like religious extremism, Durkin's portrayal of cult life focuses on the fundamental human impulses that people like Patrick prey upon. As a result, even the most savvy and charismatic filmmaker will, from time to time, begrudgingly understand why Martha has such a difficult time letting go of her abusers. It's a riveting balance that some of the most veteran directors in Hollywood would have a difficult time capturing on film.

As mentioned, Martha Marcy May Marlene is definitely an indie-style film - which may not be as riveting to some moviegoers as it is others. However, for anyone who is interested in a subtle, yet challenging, character drama with stand-out performances and some truly beautiful camerawork, the film is sure to deliver a thought-provoking time in the theater.

If you’re still on the fence about Martha Marcy May Marlene, check out the trailer below:


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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below:

Martha Marcy May Marlene is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

4.5 out of 5 (Must-See)
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