on January 15, 2012
Martha Marcy May Marlene marks the debut of two talents, the director, Sean Durkin, and the actress, Elizabeth Olsen. Both actor and director show a kind of assured performance that seems relegated to those who are either new to a scene, when talent has been building up for some time and only now has had a chance to unveil itself, or to older creative types, who have enough success behind them that they no longer fear failure (the in-between is usually the tricky part). Elizabeth Olsen (and here I'm required to tell you that she is the younger sister to the famed Full House Olsen twins) plays Martha, a girl who has spent an indeterminate amount of time in a cult hidden away in upstate New York. She eventually flees the confines of the commune and is taken in by her sister and brother-in-law who own a spacious lake house in Connecticut.
From here the film is divided into two narratives, one chronicling Martha's ordeal in the Manson-like collective and the other detailing her return to polite society at her sister's place. We learn from the former narrative that the cult takes in runaways and is overseen by a charismatic leader, Patrick, played by John Hawkes. While the cult members bandy about pseudo-New Wave jargon, we hear talk of energies, the specific philosophy of the cult remains vague. As one might expect, Patrick has intimate access to most of the women, as do the other men on the compound, to varying degrees. The cult members share duties taking care of children and tending to a garden, and they hope one day to go fully off the grid.
The second narrative follows Martha as she attempts to reconnect with her sister Lucy and return to normalcy. For Martha, the lake house is an even more foreign world than the cult. She still plays by the rules set up for her by Patrick. She goes skinny dipping in the middle of the day. And when she feels lonely in her bedroom, she has no qualms about lying down on the foot of Lucy's bed, even if her sister is in mid-coitus. As Martha's actions become increasingly bizarre, her brother-in-law puts more pressure on Lucy to hand her sister over to an institution. As we learn what Martha has gone through, it becomes more and more difficult to sympathize with Lucy and her husband's frustrations. But while Lucy's husband, Ted, often comes off as a prick (tellingly, he has a well enunciated British accent), it is hard to blame Lucy's reticence to take on the responsibility of handling Martha on her own.
Even though the two narratives are chronologically back to back--the story of Martha's time in the cult followed by her time with her sister--neither is prized over the other. In fact, it is difficult for me to describe events that occur at the compound as flashbacks because for Martha these events do not exist in the past. She carries the trauma with her. Durkin, the director, excises most establishing shots from the movie, making it difficult to tell whether the next scene begins at the lake house or the compound. The title of the film is a series of names the main character goes by. Her birth name is obviously Martha. She is given the name Marcy May by Patrick when she joins the cult. And Marlene is a communal name used by all the women in the cult to answer the phone. Martha is a woman who has been stripped of her ego and exists in the liminal space between "is" and "was."
Elizabeth Olsen does a fantastic job of portraying a woman who has undergone immense pain. While this trauma does not always manifest itself, it always lingers underneath the surface of her performance. Likewise, Durkin imbues even the most mundane scenes with a sense of tension. It is far, far too early to tell where either Olsen or Durkin's career will go at this point, but I would be interested in seeing the two work together again. Regardless, I have a feeling plenty more will come from both of these talents.
A young woman called Marcy May (played by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, remember her name) flees from an abusive cult and calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up. Her sister, who calls her Martha, hasn't seen her in over a year and finds Martha deliberately vague about where she has been. Lucy brings her to the large home she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and Martha's time in the cult is revealed through intercut flashbacks. Branded Marcy May by Patrick (John Hawkes), the charismatic leader, the commune consists of few men and many women, most from troubled backgrounds. The women are assigned individual duties, but the one they all share is to sleep with Patrick. The film wisely avoids giving too many details about the cult itself and what its basis is, but fills in all the necessary details otherwise.
This 2011 indie thriller marks the debut of writer/director Sean Durkin who has fashioned a quiet, powerful psychological drama that introduces the world to a terrific new actress. Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of two very famous twins, turns in a bold, Oscar-caliber piece of acting that allows her to successfully break from the stigma of having world-famous siblings. She's a remarkable talent and establishes her own niche as an actress, becoming a star on her own terms. The film is strong on its own merits, but, once you've seen it, it's hard to forget Olsen and even easier to forget her famous sisters.
This is a terrific debut for Durkin. Labeled as a thriller, it moves in a low-key fashion that doesn't go for easy "thrills" and instead opts for a deeply unsettling tone. The story, which uses shifting timelines in an intentionally disorienting way, never clues you in to where it's heading, but holds your attention rapt getting there. Juxtaposing this with the somber mood and static cinematography, Martha Marcy May Marlene is riveting.
Fresh off an Oscar nomination, John Hawkes is quietly sinister as Patrick. Rather than playing the cult leader as flamboyant or inherently crazy, Hawkes plays him as a soft-spoken, gentle figure and comes off as so creepy without ever trying. Physically, it's not a radical departure from his powerful, Oscar-nominated role as Teardrop in Winter's Bone but the performances are wildly different. Hawkes has been active for a long time, but it's been a mesmerizing ride watching him grow into his own as an actor, tackling such varied roles across different genres. He proves with each new performance to have an incredible amount of range and I believe his best work may still be ahead of him. With this and Winter's Bone he's showing himself as a force to be reckoned with. Choosing subtlety over bravura, rarely breaking from the soft-spoken creature he establishes, it's triumphant how his characterization of Patrick convincingly allows his presence to hang over the movie in the same way it hangs over Martha. Like Olsen, his performance is Oscar-caliber but perhaps too subtle to capture the eye of Academy voters.
This brings me back to Elizabeth Olsen. A beautiful woman in a strangely unique way, she has a very child-like look that betrays the amount of emotion she's capable of conveying. It probably helps the quality of her performance, making it so much more unexpected. She really plays this role beautifully and bravely where another actress in her position could've unwisely taken an easy route and capitalized on her name rather than her talent. It appears that Olsen has honed her craft and waited for the right opportunity to strike. Considering she gives one of the most depressing, daring, and impressive performances of 2011, she has made the right decision. This is an actress going places.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is less a thriller than a riveting, psychological portrait. It's distinctly separate from a Hollywood film, but too sophisticated for the indie label. Durkin's film is brave and unflinching, a film that could have only been made on the indie circuit. This is not because of the film's controversial elements, which aren't too graphic, but the way he unwaveringly looks at the effect the cult has had on Martha and refuses to betray the very realistic scenario. The film's final shot is abrupt and ambiguous, but far from anticlimactic. An obvious metaphor, it brings just the right amount of closure that can be afforded to this story and character. An obvious metaphor, yes, but certainly not an ineffective one. This shot is frightening and unforgettable; a brave, sad ending to the film. It's so deceptively simple, yet towering in its impact. I know this may give the impression that the film ends violently, but it creates more paranoia with a simple, unmoving shot than anything horrific could have. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a late inclusion to my top ten list and is one of the best films of 2011, with a star-making performance by a most unexpected actress.
on February 24, 2012
I am not a clinician, although from my viewing of this film it exhibited so many elements of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from what happens to a person who has suffered traumatic events. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) exhibits many of the symptoms; flashbacks, dissociative states of mind and patterns, inappropriate behavior, paranoia, emotional blunting, etc. after she was no longer held against her will in a religious cult. The content during her life within this cult is quite shocking for the viewer, at least, it was for me. This most 'probably' happened brought on through Martha's life within the cult where she was shocked innumerable times. It also may have begun earlier in her life, although from what is depicted, it arguably became full-blown and chronic while there.
Martha is renamed "Marcy May" upon her arrival with new friend Zoe (Louisa Krause). Patrick (John Hawkes) heads-up this communal cult and is overly quick to take over the new Marcy May after his renaming of her. They are located in the Catskill Mountain area in a very dense wooded area. As is typical with many cults, the women remain subservient to the men and are made to have sex with Patrick. In this particular cult, the women are made available to the other male members also. Patrick is quite a haunting persona with a likeness to another cult leader of repugnant reputation. The activities and violence of this group are also reminiscent of that horrific sect'. It provoked those heart pounding memories for me while frightening me all the more.
Martha is able to escape into the trees for her cover during the early morning hours, then taking off and running for her life. She begins to be chased by a fellow member, although eventually gets herself through the woods and into a small town. Finding a pay phone as quickly as possible, Martha calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). She is directly picked up and drastically tries to identify where she even is. Lucy finds her sister then brings Martha to her home that she shares with husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). This is where the movie quickly gains pace and Martha begins to sharply unravel. She is confused and caught between her past life in the cult commune and the present with her family. Displaying inappropriate behavior while Lucy constantly tries, mainly through questioning, to find out what has happened to her sister. The obviously normal actions of Lucy towards Martha is called, "secondary wounding". This causes Martha to have to relive the trauma she has been through while remaining in a huge amount of stress, bewilderment, and obvious confusion. Martha must, somehow, make the transition from her past into the present life in which she is living now.
This film is written and directed by first-timer Sean Durkin who did an amazing job with the handling of these character portrayals. Elizabeth Olsen is nothing short of amazing in the role of Martha, Marcy May, Marlene along with an equally inerrant John Hawkes as Patrick. The movie's soundtrack lays out so much suspense, causing indwelling stress while underscoring these events. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. For me, this is a suspenseful film and a hauntingly memorable portrayal of the mental anguish suffered from extreme and repeated trauma.
I remember back when this little indie was coming out of Sundance with all that buzz and promise and everyone (including myself) was convinced that Elizabeth Olsen was going to ride her buzz all the way to an Oscar nomination. Then, for some weird reason, it just disappeared. Olsen picked up a few sporadic mentions (the NBR breakthrough win and a BFCA nomination) but ultimately, Rooney Mara nabbed the `hot young thing' attention from Olsen and took the Oscar nomination from her. It was perplexing to me, considering all the attention she received coming out of Sundance and the film's thematic elements. Still, I had yet to see the film and so my opinion was solely based on word of mouth and presumed expectations.
I'm speechless at her Oscar miss, now that I've actually seen the film.
`Martha Marcy May Marlene', expertly conceived, flawlessly edited and beautifully acted, tells the story of a young woman named Martha who gets inducted into a cult, dons the name Marcy May and disappears for two years only to resurface into the lives of her sister and her sister's new husband. She is close-mouthed about her time spent in the cult and her memories haunt her movements as she fears they will soon come after her. Martha tries to find her place back in the real world, but her mind and her thought process has been so corroded that she blurs the lines between real life and the life she was taught to the point where everything becomes a strain.
Hands down, Elizabeth Olsen delivers one so the best performances of the year. She is outstanding here. Her naturalness in front of the camera is expertly played against the apparent awkwardness of her situation. The way her eyes betray her own insecurities and the way she imbues honesty into her most complicated scenes. She's just brilliant here.
The atmosphere created in this film really takes it that extra mile. It is a thriller of sorts, playing heavily on the fearful tones accompanied by the idea of a cult survivor, but it balances those tones beautifully behind the mask of redemptive situations. This is the story of a lost young woman trying to be found. The thing is, she was lost long before she joined the cult and so there really is nowhere to be found since leaving the cult wasn't the ultimate solution. Sean Durkin's beautifully crafts this character study with so much care and delicacy. It moves, purposefully, at a slower pace so as to soak in that feeling of unsteadiness. Watching Martha's life interweave with the life of Marcy May is organic and completely overtaking.
I'm baffled that half these reviews are negative.
Put newcomer Elizabeth Olsen on the list of brilliant young actresses filling the movie screen these days. In this psychological thriller, twentyish Martha Marlene (Olsen) leaves home after her mother dies. We don't know why, but she severs contact with her older sister, Lucy (excellent Sarah Paulson) who is married to Ted (Hugh Dancy). Somehow she ends up at a commune of sorts, headed by one of those Charles Manson types, but without the visible menace. Patrick (good as usual John Hawkes) clearly runs the show for his collective of young women and young men. What happens to them when they get older? We do know that occasionally children are born, but against all odds they are always boys. Hmmm.
After Martha (now renamed Marcy May by Patrick) is sexually abused, she decides to slip away into the woods. She finds her way into town and calls her sister on a pay phone. It's been 2 years but Martha doesn't know where she is. She thinks it's in upstate New York. Huh? Lucy, at their vacation house in Connecticut, goes to pick up Martha and returns with her to their picture perfect house on a picture perfect lake. Their primary residence is in New York City where they work.
Martha drifts in and out of rational behavior, often reverting to scenes of her experience at the compound. This gives us some insight of her plight, but we're never quite sure of her state of instability. I found it unrealistic that she wouldn't remember basic manners or that skinny dipping in front of your just-met brother-in-law would be frowned upon. After all she was only away for 2 years, but in this time it seems reality has left her. This leads to paranoia as to whether Patrick and the gang would go after her. This may be credible as one of her flashbacks involves a random and horrific home invasion perpetrated by Patrick and the girls (more Manson comparisons).
While unusual endings are to be expected in film, this one left a bad taste in my mouth. The fine performances are worth watching. Technically the movie is excellent. Great visuals, wonderful cinematography and a creepy score help add to the tension. Ultimately however, the film leaves much to be desired. There are too many unanswered questions and not enough clues to help the viewer formulate a hypothesis. See it for the acting, see it for a remarkable performance by Elizabeth Olsen but don't expect satisfaction.
The Blu ray transfer is 1080p with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. I didn't see this film in the theater previously so I'm not sure how much of the post production work mimics the original, but I thought many of the scenes unusually soft with heightened greys and blacks. I suspect this was the director's intent but it is noticeable. Other scenes in brightly lit rooms are excellent including facial close-ups, kitchen appliances and the like. Audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and is generally solid. The score opens up the rear speakers along with chirping crickets and other creatures adding to the creepy scenes.
Extras include: Mary Last Scene (1080p, 13:36): Spotlight on Elizabeth Olson (1080p, 2:46): The Story (1080p, 3:41): The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene (1080p, 3:09):
A Conversation with the Filmmakers (1080p, 3:14): The Psyche of a Cult (1080p, 5:06): Marcy's Song Music Video by John Hawkes (1080p, 3:58): Theatrical Trailer (1080p, 2:25)
Sneak Peeks (1080p, 13:12)
on December 31, 2015
I really expected to love this film after reading the glowing reviews. I wanted to see it for several years and it was a disappointment. I have to agree with the late, great Roger Ebert that the flitting back and forth between the past and present was a little too clever a plot device without any payoff. He was too generous in giving the film 3.5 out of 4 stars. Devoid of a gratifying payback, the constant past-present-past scene juxtaposition was simply distracting and not that effective a tool to imply psychosis or PTSD. The real problem is that the first-time director Sean Durkin, who also wrote this, did not fully explore how PTSD plays out and effects both the victim and loved ones. None of the scenes led up to a full-blown discussion in which Martha revealed anything enlightening about what happened to her, so her sister and brother-in-law could not feel true empathy towards her. The discussion should have taken place early on, even if there was a reluctance on both sides to tackle it. I kept waiting for this to happen, and it never fully played out.
The highlight of this film was the powerful performance by Elizabeth Olsen, supported by the very talented Sarah Paulson playing her sister, and John Hawkes as the scary cult figure who sucked Martha Marcy May into his disgusting vortex. There are really no spoilers here - the ending is so anti-climatic that my husband let out a loud groan and said it was the worst movie he has ever seen. He was exaggerating, considering he has seen well over 1,000 movies, but I agree that the ending was a cop out and a huge let down after enduring all that angst without any payoff. I am all for enigmatic endings, but this was abrasively abrupt and not effectively done. The very last scene seemed to veer off into what one might expect in a horror movie.
on March 30, 2012
"Martha..." is a good film although I have a hard time recommending it to people. With a run time of about an hour and forty minutes, watching it felt like an exhausting two and a half hours. So why did I like it? Well for starters, I really like John Hawkes. He always gives a strong performance. Elizabeth Olsen did a great job as well. Lastly, and what will stick with me the most is the writing, editing and directing of the film's psychological aspects. Their portrayal of brainwashing and cult mentality. Also the resulting distortion of morals and the abandonment of normal ethics. Yeah, it's not a happy film yet I won't forget it anytime soon.
on March 15, 2012
Basically this is a movie about a young woman who runs away from a cult to go live with a sister who she hasn't talked to in years and her sister's husband. It seems that Martha is genuinely terrified by the cult and has painful memories that fuel her paranoia. Once with her sister, Martha seems to behave in ways that would have been acceptable for the cult but are just whacked out to the average person. For instance, in one scene Martha curls up in bed with her sister and her sister's husband while they are having sex. When they freak out, Martha replies that the bed was big and they were on the other side so she didn't think it was a big deal. Martha's sister and brother-in-law take notice of Martha's increasingly odd behavior and are very concerned. The brother-in-law and sister both seem to become annoyed with Martha, but her sister seems to feel some sort of obligation to her little sis. Martha reveals nothing to either of them - she just drops hints of how she understands there are different ways of living, etc. but she never comes out and tells them of the sexual abuse she's suffered or the brainwashing. Her flashbacks of life in the cult are vivid and the leader is extremely creepy, manipulative and sadistic in a matter-of-fact way. Martha's paranoia eats her alive as she starts to believe the cult is looking for her. It seems she has some sort of guilt associated with the fact that she has participated in leading other girls into the cult, drugging them, etc. It also appears at times as if she's not quite sure what has happened concretely, as if reality has blurred into something that she's not sure is a memory or a bad dream. She's so out of sorts that her traumatic past bursts through the surface ending in her sister and brother and law committing her to a mental institution. Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic and plays the role of Martha with intelligence, cynicism, wit and beauty. She's so believable if you didn't know this was a movie, you would think that she had actually lived through this. There's no great surprise ending or dumb plot where the cult kidnaps her, but this is a very dramatic realist take on what could possibly happen to someone put in this situation. Her mental breakdown is practically unavoidable, but you aren't certain if she even views it as such. This movie was done well, but if you don't like artsy, cerebral dramas you probably won't enjoy it. I'm glad I watched it and I hope to see Elizabeth Olsen in more - she has excellent potential.
on February 28, 2012
Since I started reviewing a year ago, I have made it my mission to only review slasher films. I mean my name is Slasher Studios after all and if I started to review other horror films, I might lose my focus. Well, today I am about to break that rule. Today I am reviewing what I believe to be the best film of 2011. It is neither a slasher film nor is it a traditional horror film but it is a film that will stay with you long after many films have come and gone. The movie in question? The beautifully hypnotic "Martha Mercy May Marlene."
The film begins with the self destructive Martha (in a brilliant, one-of-a-kind performance by the beautiful Elisabeth Olsen) has run away from an abusive hippie-like cult where she was living as Marcy May for two years. She turns to her sister (nicely played in an understated performance by the always great Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law who take her in and want to help her. The problem is Martha is having a hard time separating dreams from reality and when haunting memories of her past keep resurfacing, she may need more help than anyone is able to give her.
I try to go into as much detail as possible when I am doing my plot summaries but this is the rare case when I honestly believe that less is indeed more. This is exactly the type of movie where you will get everything that you put into it. Want a Hollywood type thriller in which all the plot threads are nicely tied up at the end? This is not the movie for you. All I can say is that the harsh realities of this film combined with some of the most lush and lurid cinematography add up to a film that I won't soon forget. The fact that Elisabeth Olsen wasn't nominated by the Academy this year is one of the grossest oversights in modern day cinema. There is power here. Let it take you and you may be surprised by just how much this film truly moves you.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is literally one of the most difficult movie titles to remember in recent memory; at least until after you see the film. Shortened to MMMM in movie conversations, when you tell people that title their reply is usually along the lines of, "That sounds REALLY stupid." But Martha Marcy May Marlene is pretty much the furthest thing from stupid a film could possibly be. But then if you were try to convince somebody that a movie starring a younger sister of the Olsen twins is not only good but filled with some pretty extraordinary acting, you'd probably be laughed at. If you enjoy independent film, watch the trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene and go into the full-length film with an open mind. It's practically guaranteed you'll be surprised with what you discover.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just returned home to her family; Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha disappeared two years ago without a trace. She never called anyone or let anyone know where she was going; she was just gone. Now that Martha has returned, she doesn't seem right. She acts strangely and can't tell the difference between the past, the present, and events that she dreamed about. But she doesn't want to talk about it. She did however live with a man named Patrick (John Hawkes) on a farm with a group of other women who basically worshipped the ground Patrick walked on. But whatever happened there has tainted Martha. The events that transpired there still haunt her to this day and Martha soon comes to realize that the life she had for two years isn't so easy to run away from.
Martha Marcy May Marlene reels you in right from the start. You see Martha take off into the woods and the shaky point of view that's used along with the positioning of the camera gives you the sense that you're chasing after her, which is basically what you're doing the entire film. There's this constant sense of uneasiness dripping over each frame of the film even before anything is actually revealed. The absence of a score does wonders, but every once in awhile a slow rising high pitched tone can be heard to make things more tense and it works in spades.
The film itself is rather upsetting and almost off-putting in a way. It's incredibly difficult to watch at times, but hard to pull yourself away from at the same time. Elizabeth Olsen is an interesting actress to watch. She spends the majority of the film keeping to herself and not wanting to talk about the hell she's been through the past two years, but her unusual behavior along with how insanity begins to slip through the cracks of the front she puts on in front of her family is the beauty of not only the character but her performance as well. John Hawkes has always been a compelling actor anyway, but he's in top form here. Patrick is a very driven individual. Of course, the way he lives and his ideals are completely off the wall but it's the way he's so calm about it and so confident that makes it believable. Then there's his dark side that's just downright scary. The whole scenario brings to mind a famous serial killer; a certain family from the 1960s.
However like most movies the less you know about Martha Marcy May Marlene going in the better. One of the film's charms is how it transitions between the past and the present. It illustrates to perfection the thought process and current mindset of the Martha character. Marcy's Song, which is performed by John Hawkes, is a beautiful song but its context is genuinely creepy. Most of the conversations between Martha and her sister Lucy are some of the best scenes in the film. Their conversation by the lake while Ted is making dinner is one that stands out. You find yourself just enthralled with the film and just entranced with everything going on, but the ending is kind of a letdown. It's very open-ended and was obviously done to keep you talking (which it has done very successfully), but it didn't feel completely satisfying to me. It doesn't necessarily hurt the film overall, but is just a small nitpick on my end.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is driven by an exceptional cast and an engaging story while being wrapped up in an incredibly unnerving presentation. There doesn't really seem to be a weak actor in the cast as Elizabeth Olsen shows she's a very talented actress and John Hawkes continues to show how talented he really is. Martha Marcy May Marlene keeps you guessing, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and is just brilliant storytelling all around.