Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: October 21st, 2011 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sean Durkin Actors: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Maria Dizzia, Louisa Krause, Lauren Molina, Louisa Braden Johnson




he cleverly titled “Martha Marcy May Marlene” portrays in uncompromising despondency the effects of an abusive cult on a young girl. Through intriguingly juxtaposed scenes of past and present, the audience witnesses the psychological and social damage that has befallen not only Martha, but also her real family who attempts to care for her in the aftermath. It’s dark, it’s depressing, and it’s dismal. It’s also so methodically paced with paranoia and dread trumping actual drama that it sometimes borders on wearisome. The acting is exceptional all around, as is the minimalist score, but perhaps the film’s greatest feat (and undoing for audiences that demand conventional resolutions) is its ambiguity in key scenes that force the viewer to experience a discomforting perplexity similar to the title character’s own insecurities.

After living for two years in an abusive cult led by the persuasive and assuring Patrick (John Hawkes), young Martha (Elizabeth Olson) escapes. She attempts to reintegrate herself into normal life with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who reluctantly takes her in despite knowing nothing of her recent perils. But Martha’s sociological trauma and damaged psyche offer no solace from the memories that haunt her as she steadily succumbs to fear and paranoia.

The pacing is deliberate but incredibly slow. It’s effective in creating the mood of despair and Martha’s inability to reestablish herself with standard societal concepts, but it can’t mask the fact that there really isn’t two hours worth of events present. The dissonant musical notes accompanied by muted sounds and amplified noises works well to keep the viewer off guard and create a sense of perpetual consternation; the cinematography also helps achieve the same inquietude, with eerie close-ups and lengthy shots of troubling expressions. At the same time, however, the audience isn’t given much emotion to work with – Martha doesn’t get an opportunity to have a revelation, Lucy is robbed of closure, and even the conclusion is abrupt and devoid of any satisfaction for the psychologically damaged protagonist.

“Death is the most beautiful part of life,” instructs Patrick, the compelling leader. Whether or not director Sean Durkin has a personal investment in the story of a destructive cult and its sinister effects on a perturbed child, the film largely serves as an announcement and warning on the mental and physical devastation of such groups and the conditioning and targeting of weak-minded, previously maltreated candidates. It focuses on and reveals prior predicaments that might lead up to a “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” crime scene, but without the thrilling hunt for clues; an “Ordinary People” without the breakthrough of a psychiatrist; a hint of “Primal Fear” without the titillation of revenge; or even “The People Under the Stairs” without conspicuously nerve-wracking horror. At least the performances are convincing, with a very small cast that showcases Elizabeth Olsen in a daringly adult exhibition and Sarah Paulson in a powerful supporting role. It also struck a chord with the Sundance crowd, where Durkin won the Directing Award and the film received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize.

– The Massie Twins

  • 6/10