Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Release date: October 21, 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Screenplay: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

What was your first thought upon reading the title of this film? For some reason, I could not help but be intrigued. Questions rush to mind: is this a tongue twister? No, judging from the poster it does not look like a comedy. Who are the M girls? Sisters? Lovers? Enemies? Why is only one of them pictured? Mysterious and unsettling are the best adjectives for Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s first feature length movie.

It turns out that there is only one heroine: Martha (Olsen). However the title itself is essential. It is not just a hook for our attention, it is a timeline of the character’s evolution that can only be understood after seeing the movie.

Let us start with Martha. Like most girls, she seems strong. Like most girls, she also has insecurities. Does this seem like a recipe for disaster? At first, the answer is no but somehow, she finds herself drawn into a cult. We step into the film as she manages to escape the “prison” to which she was bound and reunites with her sister (Paulson).

From that point onwards, we are able to reconstruct her story mainly through her dreams and daydreams. Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle are given us and we come to understand the origin of Marcy May and later on, of Marlene.

Haunted by the growing paranoia that “they” are out to get her, Martha has trouble settling into her sister’s comfortable lifestyle. The lines between her memories, her fears and the reality of her surroundings become more and more blurred. Sean Durkin’s talent resides in his ability to distort those lines for the spectator as well. For instance, at one point when Martha falls asleep, we wake up with her in an unfamiliar room and realize — with her — that she is being sexually abused by the cult leader (Hawkes).

It always takes us a few moments to realize that we are inside a flashback. The transitions between past and present are so masterfully orchestrated that we can never find a comfort zone. Martha’s paranoia becomes so contagious that, until the very end, we keep doubting her safety.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is unsettling not only due to its cinematography, but also because of the way it tackles its subject. It is not a story about a cult; it is the story of Martha. As outsiders, we can often see the red flags she turned a blind eye to, but we can also feel and understand why she did so at that particular moment. Her memories are not all bleak and scary; some are even beautiful and comfortable, almost positive. The movie is based on a true story and just like the real world, things are often more dual than they appear.

While all the actors do a great job with their respective characters, honors must be given to Elizabeth Olsen’s portrayal of Martha. Who would have thought that the Olsen twins’ little sister would have it in her? The film’s most important clues are given to us through her physical expressions rather than words and not once did she fail to convey the scenario’s undertones.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is all but forgettable. It will linger in your thoughts well after you have seen it.  The ending, in its strength and suddenness, is so puzzling that it may be frustrating for some. I see it as a final attempt to engage the viewer. It is Durkin’s way of handing over the paintbrush to let us finish Martha’s portrait.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

By Echydo

11 Responses

  1. Juan Barquin says:

    I seriously loved the performances, but the film felt sort of underdeveloped to me. I’m sort of the unpopular opinion in this case though because most people adore this one.

    • Echydo says:

      @Juan Barquin, I kinda felt like that as well right after seeing the movie. At first I even hated the ending but the more I thought about the film as a whole, the more I came to like it and understand it. There are a lot of doors left open so I can see why you would find it underdeveloped; however I feel like there are enough clues to let you guess and imagine what happened or is about to happen.

    • amy says:

      @Juan Barquin, I’m with Juan on this one. It’s a frustration I didn’t leave with in let’s say… Winter’s Bone. A lot of people compared it to that one, but I really don’t know why except for the bleak indie film with John Hawkes part.

      • Juan Barquin says:

        @amy, A) It’s a relatively slow paced movie where not that much happens, B) it’s bleak as balls, C) John Hawkes is dark and moody in it, D) female lead character who has to do everything herself because everyone around her thinks she’s crazy or a burden.

  2. Rodrigo says:

    “Who would have thought that the Olsen twins’ little sister would have it in her?

    I lol’d.

    Your review makes me wanna check out the film.

    • Echydo says:

      @Rodrigo, ;D That’s what I was aiming for.

    • amy says:

      @Rodrigo, it’s a good film.

      Echydo is such a good writer, she makes you want to watch the films she reviews. LOL – I would suggest being in the mood for it, though… nothing spur of the moment watch.

      And Olsen IS one of the highlights of the film, surprisingly. She did reminded me a lot of Maggie Gyllenhaal at times haha.

      • Echydo says:


        I’m glad we have Juan and you to give a second opinion. ;) I agree with you on being in the mood for it though..

        • Juan Barquin says:

          @Echydo, it’s definitely worth a watch, but it’s just not as impressive to me as it was to everyone else haha. I also agree on being in the right mood for it though

  3. 3guys1movie says:

    This film was a bit of a let down for me. I thought Olson and Hawkes were excellent but the lack of any sort of progress in the film by MMMM and the abrupt ending left me feeling like I got ripped off. I don’t need a typical hollywood ending but i expect some sort of resolution.

  4. Castor says:

    This looks too “indie” in that minimalistic, poorly paced way for me. I will give it a try though ;)

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