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Jeff Nelson

Martha Marcy May Marlene stands confidently in the dark and haunting themes it conveys.

<I>Martha Marcy May Marlene</I>
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There seem to be different ways that mainstream and independent filmmakers provoke fear and tension. In the case of the bigger budgeted films, they create loud 'stingers' and have something jump into the frame in order to make the audience jump out of his or her seat. However, the independent moviemakers take a much more subtle approach. They draw the viewers in slowly, create an eerie story with well-developed characters, and haunt us psychologically. These don't apply to everybody in each category, although it appears to be one of the large differences between the two. I will always opt for the route that many independent filmmakers have taken. Martha Marcy May Marlene follows in the same footsteps. It utilizes themes such as paranoia, confusion, and guilt. In this film's case, it isn't trying to create fear in the audience, but attempting to create a spooky atmosphere that haunts the viewer little by little as the running time continues in order to create tension. Martha Marcy May Marlene stars newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, who is the younger sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Is this a career-making role or was it a mistake to have her cast in the role?

After escaping from a violent cult in rural New York, Martha tries to reconnect with her estranged sister, Lucy, and Lucy's husband, Ted. The brainwashing she endured continues to prevent her from forming an identity of her own. Overwhelmed with paranoia, guilt, and shame, Martha isolates herself until Lucy begins to suspect her sister's emotional trauma has deeper underlying causes. The film doesn't all take place with Lucy and Ted. The timeline is jumbled as viewers are understanding what happened to her while she was in the cult and where she currently is with her sister. Therefore, we're left wondering what has happened to her while she was in the cult and what she has done. She clearly doesn't display normal behavior in the present time as she constantly believes that everybody is part of the cult and trying to get her. The pacing may be slow, but I found the screenplay to be a solid display of psychological and behavioral issues that have ensued while in the cult. A few scenes slowed the movie down at times. Perhaps shortening a few of these sequences could have done the pacing a huge favor. The parallelism of what is considered normal behavior is rather intriguing as we see how each group of people Martha is with is like an entirely different society. While we don't get as much insight on the supporting characters, there are quite a few that are placed on the screen and the screenwriter has done a nice job in giving each character a solid amount of depth for us to have emotions towards each and every person. From the moment it starts until the credits are rolling, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting experience that is able to truly get under the skin of its audience. The ending really leaves it up for interpretation to what the viewer has collected from the experience. I personally am satisfied with the ending as it fits the haunting feeling of the film and it hands us the uncertainty that Martha has been facing the entire film. Other will feel it's an aggravating ending that leaves us with too big of questions. Everybody will have his or her own opinion on the final moments of the film.

Surprisingly, most of the buzz that surrounded Martha Marcy May Marlene after it was shown at film festivals wasn't even about the movie itself. Most of it swarmed around Elizabeth Olsen, performing as Martha. To put it simply, this is a rare type of performance that defines an actress. With this amount of talent, I expect to see her starring in a lot of movies to come. Hopefully she's able to keep up dishing out such performances. Olsen is utterly convincing as the title character and turned a haunting atmosphere into one that will keep you at the edge of your seat. This most certainly is a career-making role as she delivers on every level. Sarah Paulson is also impressive as Lucy. Her chemistry with Elizabeth Olsen is incredible on screen. She's believable from start to finish and truly brings her character to life. John Hawkes is Patrick, the head of the cult that Martha escaped. Even after his show-stopping performance in Winter's Bone as Teardrop, he still manages to place a completely loathsome character on screen and make it all too real. To put it simply, Martha Marcy May Marlene has a cast that's unbeatable.

This is a strong debut for writer/director Sean Durkin. It's a dark drama that holds some eerie themes and managed to deliver us something without the need to spoon-feed us as many other filmmakers do. There are a lot of mysterious factors here that the audience is left to infer about. The timeline is organized well and the dialogue is solid. However, the pacing in a handful of the scenes could have been aided by cutting them down a little bit. The performances are great all across the board. Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes are both so convincing that, by the end of the film, it doesn't feel as if we were watching actors. Martha Marcy May Marlene stands confidently in the dark and haunting themes it conveys. I recommend moviegoers to see this when possible.

My Rating = Four Stars

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