Saturday, June 11, 2011

SFF Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

My third film at the Sydney Film Festival was the hot product and eagerly anticipated Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it is easily the best one so far. The debut feature from writer/director Sean Durkin is an unsettling, yet completely compelling psychological drama. One could make a case in claiming this film to be of the horror genre too. Martha Marcy May Marlene premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, for which Durkin won the Festival 'Best Director' prize. It also recently screened in the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. No small feat.

With an ambiguous narrative that deftly balances past and present, assured direction from Sean Durkin, some striking wide lens cinematography and phenomenal performances, this is a captivating film experience that is not only relentlessly intense, but effortlessly overwhelms the audience with this feeling of dread. Well, that's how I felt, and judging by the rest of the audience, I was not alone. I guess it is hard to explain the feeling, but rest assured, you will be in awe of the exceptional filmmaking on display.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of Martha (the beautiful Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley), a damaged and mentally imbalanced young woman who escapes from a destructive cult in rural New York and tries to reintegrate into a normal life with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Having fled the commune and escaped through the nearby woods, Martha calls Lucy in a state of hysterics. Lucy asks no questions. She is just relieved to hear from her sister following her two year disappearance. She invites her to stay with her and her husband, Max (Hugh Dancy), at their spacious Connecticut holiday home.

Clearly distressed and traumatised from her recent experiences, Martha struggles to assimilate into the life of Lucy and Max, finding is suffocating. She causes hostility within the household as she ungratefully refuses to let her sister help her, rudely attacks Max's materialistic lifestyle, and starts to frighten them with her erratic and inexplicable behaviour. Martha tells Lucy she moved away with a boyfriend, who had since left her. We are unsure whether her paranoia at being pursued to her sister's house is genuine or not, but as we start to be exposed to her life within the cult (via flashback), and her relationship with the equally charming as terrifying Patrick (an always excellent John Hawkes), we start to discover that her past is scarred by more sinister events. Well spoken and pleasant when she finds solace with Patrick, she soon finds her innocence crushed and her affinity to decency lost. How badly scarred she really is, becomes horrifically apparent.

Jarringly obtuse in its narrative, and technical style, this perplexing and thought-provoking psychological study is temporally very ambiguous, all the way to the killer ending. We know that Martha was at the commune for approximately two years, but we don't know how much time separates the breakdown that most severely ruptures her psyche, and her escape. It is even difficult to lock down the point when we recognise that the activities within the compound have shifted from the eccentric to violent and sadistic. 

Martha asks her sister towards the end of the film,"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or if its something you dreamed." This pretty well sums up the ambiguity of the film, which challenges the audience to differentiate between past and present, reality and dream, sanity and paranoia. The editing slips between time frames, often seamlessly, without distinguishing between the two. 

Deciphering the chronology becomes more difficult in the second half, as temporal changes often occur in the same sequences, linked by a superimposition. I found it to be expertly timed, with the camera lingering on the characters, an emotional breakdown imminent at any moment, and allowing the dialogue to flow often in just a single shot. While Durkin never reveals more than he needs to, he is committed to tying up every mystery. 

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, a new star is born in Elizabeth Olsen. She is terrific. She reminded me a lot of Maggie Gyllenhaal throughout the film, but she has a husky voice like Scarlett Johannson. It is a confident, captivating performance, and one that could find her following the footsteps of Jennifer Lawrence into an Oscar nomination. This intelligently measured performance, which utilises a broad spectrum of emotions, is relayed almost solely through her face, though it is evident in her awkward body language that her social disintegration has left her with a deep insecurity and a disregard to morality. 

It's deeply affecting to watch. There are some very uncomfortable sequences of exploitation and cult brainwashing. The seemingly gentle, understanding Patrick is at first very charming, and the saviour that has introduced these lost souls to a 'family' they could trust. But soon enough, and without warning, we find he is using them for sexual favours and turning them into accomplices to sadistic criminal acts. Hawkes is superb again. While I thought he was a genuine Oscar contender for Winter's Bone, he effortlessly commands the screen whenever he is present. All the performances are top notch, including a small role from Brady Corbett (Funny Games), one of the male members of the cult. 

Jody Lee Lipe's exquisite widescreen lensing is also commendable. A few of the scenes were very intriguingly shot. I'm not really sure how to describe them, but they had a washed out appearance, with a soft focus. They weren't exclusive to one time period either. There were some very clever compositional innovations used too. The balance of light and dark, the use of mirrors and shifted focus were all expertly handled. Make sure you see Martha Marcy May Marlene when it receives a wide release, it could very well feature into the Oscar considerations for 2011. 

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)


  1. Ooooh...this sounds good. I've actually been quite interested in seeing it since it had all of those rave reviews from Sundance (?) earlier in the year. Hopefully it should feature in the NZFF line-up.

  2. Yep, it was Sundance! It's a brilliant, captivating experience.

  3. This sounds like a great film - I'll keep my eyes peeled. The title sounds like a Woody Allen film - Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Melinda and Melinda - but, reading your review, it is clearly NOT at all the same type of film.

    The fact that you say "completely compelling psychological drama. One could make a case in claiming this film to be of the horror genre" next to that top shot reminds me of BLACK SWAN - any similarities? Sounds likel stylistically, it is completely different...

  4. Simon, I guess it does share some similarities - a paranoid young girl who feels like she is being pursued. This paranoia isn't built by pushing herself to a limit, but by becoming lost in the world.

    Martha is trying to reintegrate into normal life after a series of traumatic experiences. We are slowly revealed to what these are, as she extent of the damage becomes horrifically realised in the present, as her estranged sister attempts to help her return to a healthy mental state.

    It felt like the small indie feature type of 'Winter's Bone'.

  5. Oh wow - she is totally a dead ringer for Maggie Gyllenhaal! Astute comparison. I'm thrilled you liked this, as I'm really anxious to see it. If only I lived in a city that had a substantial film festival...

    How does it rate against other recent thrillers/mysteries, i.e. Winter's Bone??

  6. Yeah, she really does resemble her. I think it certainly in the league of Winter's Bone. It may be the film from Sundance that challenges the award season this year!

  7. So glad to read another positive review. I have only seen the trailer thus far, but this is certainly one on my radar when it receives wide release.

  8. I saw this at the fest too and really enjoyed it. Terrific cinematography and it's exciting to see another exceptional young actor playing great roles.

    I really want to see her in Silent House.

    Jesue V

  9. Yeah, Elizabeth Olsen is beautiful and gives a fantastic performance. I hope that she is considered for an Oscar nomination. There is a fantastic pace to this film, and there is an ever-present sense of dread. Loved the performances, and as you say, the cinematography is exceptional too.

    Thanks for stopping by. Nice blog!

  10. Sounds excellent. I hadn't heard of this until I saw a trailer for it in front of The Guard this past weekend.

  11. It is a great film. It has this slow-burning intensity and consistent sense of dread. Plot points are revealed in very interesting ways, and it is both cleverly shot and edited. As for the performances, I hope both Olsen and Hawkes are honoured.

  12. GREAT review. Seems we have very similar sentiments concerning the film, however I think yours are far better articulated here than mine in my review.

    I've posted comments on a few blogs about my distaste for the film's final scene, which you seemed to have enjoyed. I'm all about ambiguity in movies, but this, quite honestly, just seemed flat out lazy to me.

    Maybe I'm being too harsh....?

  13. Thanks for reading Alex, and the kind words. I thought your review was excellent, and I came out agreeing with just about everything, as usual.

    I really really liked the film. From the opening frames I knew it was going to be something different - and I was tense and on-edge for the entirety. I loved the seamless editing and though it created ambiguity about what part of the story we were situated, it never became confusing. Subtle details (like the significance of her imagining the rocks on the roof) are explained later and left to the viewer to put together. The wide lens photography too. Wow.

    As for the end - I wasn't sure what to make of it initially. It was a jolt and I went with it because the entire film had been so strong, and I do like open endings. I don't want to delve too far into it - but I got the sense that her fears (and we aren't sure if they are genuine or paranoia) are genuine and the cult members have finally caught up to her. We see a flash of a guy in a white shirt - the same guy she sees watching her from the bank? I don't know, I guess it is a little lazy - but I got the sense that the final shot meant that she will be forever 'looking over her shoulder'.