On a seemingly idyllic, apparently communal rural farm, Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), dressed like a 1930's farm wife, sets the table for the midday meal. The men come in and eat while the women wait on the stairs. Then the women eat and clean up. The next morning, the young woman slips out of the farmhouse and into the woods, soon followed by others, but she makes it into town and, despite being found by Watts (Brady Corbet, 2007's "Funny Games," "Melancholia"), gets up the nerve to make a phone call to her sister. Lucy (Sarah Paulson, TV's 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip') has worried about the younger orphaned sibling she left behind with an aunt years ago when she went to college, but although she cannot help but note the strangeness of Martha's behavior, she has no idea her sister has been all of "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
This Sundance hit is a tour de force feature debut by writer/director Sean Durkin, who melds past and present like one flowing stream to build the cause and effect of becoming ensnared in a cult. The film is creepy and disturbing and convincing in its portrait of a young mind splintered and reshaped by unnatural experiences packaged philosophically as the true way by a charismatic older man. Casting by Randi Glass and Susan Shopmaker is inventive and inspired, a mix of speciality names and unknowns who meld together just so, and Elizabeth Olsen blazes as the scared and damaged girl who's slipping into psychosis. Whether intentionally or not, Durkin has created Exhibit A for the release of John Waters' favorite Manson Family member, Leslie van Houten.
What's so unique about "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (the title, so difficult to remember, is impossible to forget after seeing the film, especially the way Durkin teases the identity of that last name out) is how it so seamlessly shifts from the present into flashbacks, Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier meticulously matching scenes. This has the added effect of letting us into Martha's mental state, how sounds and sights plummet her from the (relative) safety of her sister's vacation home back into her recent, horrific past until she sometimes can no longer can tell the difference. Durkin constructs Martha's past from her innocuous, friendly introduction to Patrick (John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone," "Contagion"), the farm's leader, by way of Watts (as in Tex Watson?) by way of Zoe (Louisa Krause, "Taking Woodstock"), a female friend. It's Patrick who dubs her Marcy May, but it's the oldest of the women, Katie (Maria Dizzia in another breakout role), who assures her that she will find her place, who doesn't pressure her, who comforts her....after, well, her 'special night' of full indoctrination. Martha/Marcy May fits in so well, Patrick writes a song for her and she's given a new recruit, Sarah (Julia Garner), to 'teach and lead' on her very own, and if these scenes are ominous, well, it gets worse.
Lucy and her architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, "Our Idiot Brother," SHOtime's "The Big C") are vacationing in a massive house with huge windows overlooking a lake (the house itself becomes quite significant). Lucy drives several hours to get Martha, who only tells her sister that a boyfriend has lied to her and she has left. Lucy is frustrated, guilty and worried and afraid to push too hard. But Martha's behavior is odd - she strips off her clothes and jumps into the lake naked with Ted. Her manners are crude. When the couple, in the midst of making love, suddenly realize Martha is curled up at the end of their bed, they really begin to worry. Martha parrots back the reasons Lucy gives her for the inappropriateness of her behavior. When Martha asks Lucy if she 'hears something on the roof,' it's dismissed as falling pine cones, but the distress caused Martha to wet herself. Meanwhile the stress of taking in a family member who more and more clearly needs mental help can be seen chinking away at the new marriage.
Olsen is just fantastic here, at first a lovely quiet girl on the farm, later scared and confused, then dreamily paranoid with her sister. Durkin's given the character every reason to shield her past from her sister. Paulson walks on eggshells with deep concern, Durkin's gradually revealed family history shoring up the behavior of both. Dancy's a nice, if entitled, guy who's pushed too far, whose behavior we see paralleled in his sister-in-law's history. Hawkins underplays, which works immeasurably for Durkin's deliberate set up. Dizzia makes for the perfect follower, astonishing in her ability to bridge extremes. Cinematography, production design, costume and score all meticulously work together to help create Durkin's vision of a shattered psyche trailing potentially lethal bread crumbs in its wake.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is the type of new American classic Sundance so rarely produces anymore. It's got a creepy, suspenseful build and one of the best endings of the year.
A young woman frantically runs out of a house and into the woods as a man chases after her, calling out “Marcy May!” She later calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), in a desperate cry for help. Lucy comes for her and they go to the sister’s summer home where Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) awaits. Over the next days the young woman exhibits increasingly strange behavior, making Lucy and Ted (and us) wonder what happened to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
This is a mystery story of cult abduction and brainwashing that skillfully keeps the viewer guessing. With the use of well-integrated flash backs to Marcy May’s (nee Martha) life under the iron fist of cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes giving a commanding, Charles Mason-like strength to his character), we learn what Lucy and Ted are never told by Martha. This makes for an intriguing story as we are fed dribs and drabs about Martha’s life, explaining her behavior once out of “captivity.”
First time feature writer-director T. Sean Durkin never lays all of his cards on the table, making us wonder what we have not been told. His star, the Olson twins’ sister Elizabeth, is outstanding as the enigmatic title character (the Marlene part is explained, briefly). The young actress delivers a character of both fragility and strength who has been out of the loop of normalcy for far too long. John Hawkes, though diminutive in size, gives a powerhouse performance as the charismatic and malevolent cult leader. Patrick is a chilling, forceful character and Hawkes delivers the goods. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy give fine performances as the befuddled couple trying (and failing) to cope with Martha’s ways.
The values on this low budget indie film belie its cost and the filmmakers are able to use an excellent cast, imaginative and intriguing story and no frills, straightforward production to tell a story that pulls no punches. It can be harsh, it can be shocking but it keeps your attention throughout, keeping me thinking about “MMMM” long after the credits rolled. I give it a B+.
and Ratings Archive | Top
10 | Video
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.