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.