Martha Marcy May Marlene. Quite the long name, and as a movie title it may be off-putting for some people, since it gives no obvious cues as to what the movie is about. However, the buzz is loud out of the festival circuit, notably Sundance (although it has also played Cannes, Toronto, Sydney, New York, and Vancouver film fests among others), where first-time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin won the Best Director award for the film, in addition to its being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Durkin also wrote the story, which centers on a young girl named Martha, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Olsen (the youngest of the Olsen sisters). Martha’s tale is told in pieces, going back and forth between past, present, and her dreams. Having lost her way and struggling in the face of uncertainty, Martha joins a collective group home in upstate New York, which she finds refreshing and welcoming compared to her previous life. What she fails to notice are the striking similarities of her new home to that of a cult. Once invited inside, she gradually becomes brainwashed into being one of the many females who help run the farm and do all the work, also sharing the duty of bedmate for the scarily sweet and manipulative father figure of the house, Patrick—another multi-layered performance by John Hawkes. From this point on, Martha’s life gets incredibly complicated, and even for the viewer, it becomes clear how her experiences have affected her mentally and emotionally. The filmmaking style greatly enhances this, building the tension while at the same time feeding information to the audience gradually, enabling more and more of the story to make sense along the way. Durkin’s roles as writer and director also blend perfectly with the pacing of the editing.
The film is compelling and filled with suspense, however it is the antithesis to the current Hollywood style of filmmaking. Instead of visual overkill with violence and obvious dialogue for the action in a nice and neat 3-act story, Durkin has created a story that for the most part, takes place in the two weeks after the majority of the traumatizing events for Martha, when her paranoia is highest about the cult’s leader Patrick trying to track her down. By focusing on this period of time, we as viewers are able to directly connect the dots in terms of how her time with the cult affected her, and how damaged she has become—by watching her interact with her sister and her sister’s husband, her family by blood. The sisters have issues of their own to work through, and it is interesting to watch the family dynamic change drastically for Martha between the two situations. The adage “less is more” holds true here. The tension builds up as we get inside Martha’s head during her first steps of rehabilitation, and through flashbacks we slowly see just how dangerous the cult can be—of which Martha is so scared, she becomes delusional while trying to fall asleep every night at her sister’s house. By building up the family drama and showing the effects of her time in the cult, the brief glimpses into the dark side are striking in contrast to the cushy modern lakefront mansion Martha’s sister and her husband have rented for the summer, used as a retreat from the city life and to take a break from their comfortably well-off jobs. The sisters’ relationship is strained from the start, but Martha’s silence on her recent experiences and her sister’s inability to understand just what has happened to her cause considerable stress during their attempt to reconnect.
I found Martha Marcy May Marlene a unique and powerful film; one in which the machine clicks on all cylinders to create a story that is compelling on a purely visual level as well as emotionally. The environment itself is a character in both sections of the story, as is the music—both the soundtrack (at times just the sound of nature) and the music performed within the movie. Cult leader Patrick’s song he wrote for Martha is one of the most impressively unsettling scenes of the whole film. Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes both nail their respective roles, and the rest of the cast was surprisingly strong as well, forming believable yet separate family units around Olsen’s character. Several other familiar faces also show up onscreen, including Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson, and Brady Corbet—with an incredible and possibly purposeful resemblance to Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill (see picture below). Olsen comes out of nowhere with this performance, but regardless of her previous experience, the fact that she was between the ages of 20 and 21 when she filmed it is amazing.
I had the opportunity to speak with Olsen after the screening, and she revealed that she really only had two weeks to immerse herself into the script before they started filming, and that the rehearsal process was so continuous, the cast would be together throughout each day and keep going through their lines together right up until the first take. Since it was shot on film stock and had a limited budget, each take was extremely important, providing little room for error for the cast and crew. To me, that was also a success of the movie; the film grain provides a grittiness for the viewer in the dim outdoor scenes and low-light interiors that matches perfectly with the mood of the piece. The film goes into limited release in the US on October 21, 2011, and I highly recommend having the theater-going experience for it.