Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Written & Directed by Sean Durkin

I usually start these reviews by providing some level of background either on the people involved in the film, the storyline, or just simply my own personal background with the film. However, this one is difficult to open with for a few reasons. For one, it is the feature debut for the writer/director, Sean Durkin. So for his style and level of success, I cannot comment. The film’s star, Elizabeth Olsen (yes, she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), is also making her film debut here, which means she is only of note for being related to the Olsen twins. She has gotten great buzz for her performance, and has secured a number of other films to be released in the next few years. All I can say I knew going into this interesting film was that it looked fascinating, and it did have John Hawkes, nominated for an Oscar for last year’s Winter’s Bone.

Olsen stars as a young woman, Martha, who is living in the Catskills with a strange group of people led by Patrick (John Hawkes). It may not be accurate to call them a cult group, but their way of life, which includes a pseudo communist community where the women share clothes, bedrooms and lovers, is not the social norm. Martha, known as Marcy May in this community, decides to flee to her sister (Sarah Paulson). But acclimating back into what is considered a normal life proves difficult for Martha, as she struggles to shake off the questionable morals she gained from her experience in the mountains and the psychological effects of disappearing from her family for two years.

When I left the theater after the showing I went to, I am not sure how many people enjoyed the film, how many hated it, and how many were still trying to process it. I would venture a guess that the vast majority of the crowd exiting the theater were still in that processing stage, and those that were not, probably hated the film. With everything going on in the film, and the subtlety of the narrative delivered by Durkin, the film is not readily consumed. There is a great deal of thought involved in trying to disseminate this puzzle, which is both a strength and a weakness. For one, the story is told with a deep interwoven style, meshing the present of Martha at her sister’s with the time she spent at the secluded farm in the Catskills. For this reason the editing is to be applauded in its ability to make it as convoluted and confusing as it was, which brings me to the weakness. There are way too many questions raised throughout the film to be readily explained. Even at the conclusion, and perhaps especially at the ending, not enough answers are provided to grab hold of in order to explain things.

Open endings are something that I generally like, but with the questionable nature of the rest of the film, I found this one hard to swallow. However, as I sat in the car on the drive home, discussing everything with my mother who saw the movie with me, we slowly began to be able to piece together the film. It was not easily, but sometimes these exercises in film discussion can be very beneficial. I do not want to spoil the film and what we were able to piece together, though some people probably would like me to. There is something there to be applauded from screenwriter/director Sean Durkin. His combination of ideas and vision craft a fairly unique, and very subtle, tale about a trouble girl, who, after losing her parents, runs away and involves herself in a circumstance of declining morals. Soon she finds her heart and has seen things go too far, but she is still fragile and slightly brainwashed from her traumatic experiences.

Elizabeth Olsen, receiving great praise for her performance, is quite good. She matches the films subtlety with some of her own, and is convincing of a broken soul with a confused outlook. Sarah Paulson is good as her sister Lucy as well, and John Hawkes, who somewhat reprises his role as Teardrop from Winter’s Bone, but without the good side, is also good in limited screen time. However, I would not call any performance great. The cinematography however was spectacular. Not only was it endlessly interesting in its composition, but it seemed to mirror more often than not the level of angst and psychological breakdown depicted within its frames. This is a film that cannot bear a recommendation beside of it because of its difficulties. This is not a film to tread into lightly, nor one to exit lightly for that matter. Everything about it was amazingly intriguing, fascinating and compelling, yet even after great thought I do not think I can personally call it one of the year’s best films, but the fact remains that I admire its craft and the finished the product. It toes the line of brilliance with that of flimsy storytelling. Perhaps with multiple viewings and the passage of time this will come to be called a twisted masterpiece, but for now I will simply call it a pretty good movie.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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