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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) Review


Martha Marcy May Marlene
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Rated: R


After seeing the recent “Paranormal Activity 3” you go home, maybe leave the lights on and second-guess those strange noises in your house as demons, and wonder if someone in your house is actually wandering around possessed by a demon at night. While this may be scary to think about, the fear of actually being haunted by a ghost or demon fades away. Martha Marcy May Marlene, is more about real fears then demonic possession. Fears of paranoia, hallucinations, loss of identity etc. Being in a cult isn’t always about drinking the kool-aid and murdering people its about being stripped away of everything you thought you were, about not being accepted, and being controlled.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), doesn’t have much family except her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives now with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but to a strange commune/cult living in the mountains of somewhere in New England, she is known as Marcy May. She was given the name by the group’s leader, Patrick played by John Hawkes. After enough disturbing experiences taken place over Martha’s few years she decides one day to leave. She now must face reconnecting with a estranged sister as well as society she no longer is familiar with, while always looking over her shoulder wondering who might be looking for her.

This film is truly a great low-budget arthouse drama that is propelled by an extraordinary lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen in the kind of breakthrough dramatic role that must young actresses dream of.  Much like the breakout role of Brit Marling in Another Earth. Olsen commands the screen in an arresting, engaging performance even when her character has some uncomfortable, awkward moments. The viewer never once pities or feels sorry for or angry at Martha for her actions or the things she says but instead is thrown into her confused and paranoid mindset. On the opposite of Elizabeth Olsen is the equally charismatic and terrifying performance of John Hawkes as Patrick, the cult’s leader. Hawkes, who played a similarly unhinged character in Winter’s Bone amps it up to an even creepier, Charles Manson-esque leader whom like some of the best on-screen villains can go from charming to psychotic in a blink of an eye. Contrast the amazing scene where Hawke’s sings the eerily beautiful Marcy’s song to the  scene of him talking to a man whose house he’s broken into, which reminded me of the equally tense scene of Hawkes getting pulled over by a cop in Winter’s Bone. Hawkes may get overlooked at the Oscars for his outstanding role that fits him like a glove. Although his small seems smaller in contrast to Olsen, he leaves an undeniable impact on the whole film and is a presence throughout. You know you’re a great actor when you portray a completely despicable character and you wish he had more screen time.

The movie is definitely a challenging one, and is not the horror movie most people would expect but is more of a realistic depiction of the life after being in a cult. While I may praise and the movie will be remembered most for the exceptional performances, alot of the credit should go to first time writer/director Sean Durkin whose direction, storytelling, editing, score, and beautiful cinematography all work seamlessly and only help intensify the main performances. The editing especially is notable for its great way of transitioning between flashbacks and present day that give it a flow that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish between dreams, reality, and memories. The static cinematography also captures beautiful New England mountain/forest scenery mixed with a creepy farmhouse and gorgeous lakehouse.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (say it 5 times fast), may be strange and may be difficult to watch but it also might be one of the best films of 2011. A great independent film that is challenging and probes alot of discussion and doesn’t leave it’s audience with easy answers. It’s haunting final shot/ending is one I haven’t been able to shake since i’ve seen it.

Rating: 9/10



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