Martha Marcy May Marlene Review


As far as gritty character studies go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recent one quite as good as Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. The writer/director, wearing both hats for the first time, proves adept at two very difficult things: Structuring a film to maximize tension and emotional impact, as well as getting an outstanding performance out of a previously unknown actor.

Elizabeth Olsen gives career-defining work here, and coming from a young woman previously best-known for being the young sister of two child stars, her excellence can’t be stressed enough. But I was pleasantly surprised to find out the film’s brilliance went beyond the lead performance. All the hype is (understandably) over Olsen, but ‘MMMM’ is a terrific film. It will leave you a little shaken, but in a good way, for it’s an uncompromising and quite powerful experience.

The title of the film refers to its main character (played, of course, by Olsen). She was born Martha. We learn throughout the film about her troubled childhood, which eventually led her to seek out Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of a cult based deep in the Catskills. Once there, Patrick gives her the monicker of Marcy May, yet to young women outside the “family” who are thinking of joining, she’s Marlene.

The film opens with her escape. She places a call to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a stranger for the past two years who has genuinely worried about her younger sister and gladly picks her up. They head to Lucy’s vacation home in Connecticut, where Martha meets Tom (Hugh Dancy), Lucy’s new husband. There, Lucy and Tom try to crack Martha’s hardened shell, but she’s not talking. Yet, everything around her reminds her of the time she spent with Patrick and company, causing her to break down regularly, and forcing Lucy and Tom to make a tough decision.

Olsen’s work is nothing short of outstanding. It’s as strong a debut as any since perhaps Carey Mulligan in An Education. Her work at first is quite subtle. There’s nothing in her character to make you think she’s mentally unstable. But as I got to know her more and see some of what she’s been through, I was shocked she wasn’t even worse. All throughout her character’s transformation, however, Olsen maintains control. She internalizes things very well, but when the script calls upon her to be expressive, she answers. It’s absolutely my female performance of the year, and it very well could earn Olsen an Oscar nomination, despite the film’s low budget and profile.

But while the heart of Martha Marcy May Marlene is Olsen’s performance, what I found most gripping is the way the story unfolds. There’s an element of mystery to the entire film, thanks to some really sly editing and a refreshingly smart script. The film flashes back and forth between the present (Martha with Lucy and Tom) and the recent past (Marcy May’s time at the cult). But unlike many other jumbled-timeline films, the cuts here are always done meaningfully (some event will trigger her to flashback or re-enter the present moment), and many of them are also unnoticeable. There were times during the film that I wasn’t quite sure which setting we were at. You have to piece ‘MMMM’ together, and while that doesn’t necessarily reward the impatient, those who give themselves over to this kind of storytelling will almost certainly admire it.

The supporting performances are on the same level as Olsen’s, but every actor in the ensemble does his or her job well. John Hawkes, fresh off a Best Supporting Actor nomination last year for Winter’s Bone, inhabits the role of a cult leader with all the sleazy charm you’d expect. Sarah Paulson plays Lucy as a benevolent older sister, yet it’s clear from her relationship with Martha that there are elements of both disdain and regret from past interactions. Hugh Dancy, meanwhile, is sympathetic for the frustrating situation in which he finds himself, and frustrating in his own right for not being more patient with Martha. His character isn’t quite as developed as I would have liked, but I think the actor does a great job in bringing out some of his depth.

At year’s end, I don’t expect many films to top Martha Marcy May Marlene in terms of acting and screenwriting, nor authenticity and raw emotional power. This is independent filmmaking at its finest, and I can’t wait to see what both Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin do next.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *