Martha Marcy May Marlene – Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene Elizabeth Olsen as 'Martha,' Martha Marcy May Marlene, Fox Home Entertainment

Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM) is a peculiar movie title for an uniquely complicated thriller; and is writer/director Sean Durkin‘s debut film. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 where it  received the Best Director award; has won numerous awards and garnered many nominations, including Best First Feature, Best Female Lead (Elizabeth Olsen), and Best Supporting Male (John Hawkes) at the 2012 Spirit Awards. The film is about a young woman who escapes from a cultist’s community where she endured psychological and physical abuse.

From the very beginning, we are drawn in as Martha (Olsen), wakes up before everyone else and quietly sneaks out of the house to the nearby woods, and runs. It wasn’t immediately discernible why she ran, or who she was running from, until a young gentleman finds her eating at a local diner. Her relived demeanor quickly changed to that of an intently warned facial expression. He asks her why she left. She responded that she just wanted to come to town. He told her that one of “them” could have bought her to town. Something is wrong, and it didn’t take watching the whole of the film to find out why.

The psyche of a cult

Martha Marcy May Marlene John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' 2011 - Fox Home Entertainment

Martha is now at a payphone, calling her sister whom she hasn’t seen or contacted in over two years. Martha doesn’t know exactly where she is, and she’s worried about waiting too long for her sister to pick her up. The film proceeded with an uneasy calm and eventually, your understanding of what Marcy experienced began to shockingly reveal itself.

“The farm” was overseen by a seemingly mild, and concerned father figure, Patrick (Hawkes), who represented the epitome of psychological manipulation–he is dutifully concerned about the welfare of his family; he makes sure that they are all fed, clothed, offered parental wisdom, encouragement–he also raped them. The men ate before the women–who were only allowed to eat once a day. He taught them how to break into homes and steal…how to cover up a murder. He possessed an uncanny ability to exploit every vulnerability–and issued psychological punishments with destructive effects.

A matter of brainwashing

Martha Marcy May Marlene Sara Paulson, Elizabeth Olsen, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' 2011 - Fox Home Entertainment

It isn’t any mystery why Martha had to run away, yet she could not escape the dogma of the farm. He sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are still confused about what happened to Martha or where she’d been, however, they noticed her odd behaviors–her overall demeanor is unattached and in a constant debilitated state–the longer she stayed with them, the psychological torment she endured on the farm began to reveal itself.

When Lucy and Ted were being sexually intimate, Martha stole into their room and cuddled along side them. She would on occasion sleep on the floor of her room–she’d piss herself–all the while, there is a communication problem between Marcy and her sister Lucy. That hidden conflict somehow prevented Marcy from telling Lucy what has all happened to her.

Back at the farm, Martha had a constant groomer or follower, Zoe (Louisa Krause) who would basically comfort her when bad things happened to her during her stay there. When she was raped by Patrick, Zoe would tell her how honorable the incident was and how she wished it was her first time again–Martha should enjoy what happened to her, and not be so selfish. One of the older women even told Martha that what they were doing to her was okay–that they all wouldn’t be there if what they were doing was bad for they all loved each other. Zoe’s job was simple: she was instructed to ‘attend to’ her prospect to encourage conversion. Soon, it was Martha’s turn to train her prospect–while their leader Patrick remaining ever attentive, in totalism.

Away…but not far enough away

Elizabeth Olsen as 'Martha,' 2011, Fox Home Entertainment

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a rather unsettling film and is difficult to comprehend with the fact that the events Martha experienced in the film are unfortunately, plausible. There are cases that mar the headlines of news outlets about people who escaped horrible ordeals at the hand of an encapsulation society, or cults (i.e. Charles Manson, Jim Jones) and the difficulties to ‘de-program’ the survivors, as evidence by newcomer Olsen’s portrayal of “Martha” or “Marcy May” in the film. A gloomy and believable performance. Hawkes appeared underused in the film but ‘appropriately appeared’ when it was necessary register his dutiful presence within his  brainwashed ‘society.’

The powerful and emotional impact of this film did not come from the stellar performances–it was the enduring silence that prevailed in this film–the dialogue never gave much in the way of detail. You just have to sit there, watch, and wait every emotional heavy. The cinematography is stunning, revealing every detail of Martha’s life on the farm and the almost cruel adjustment she had to also endure while living with her sister and her brother-in-law. Durkin’s impressive attention to detail make for its poignant delivery–assigning you the role as surveyor in Martha’s manipulative world.

Overall, what bothered me most about the film is the silence, which seemed “too ambiguous,” lacking some finer detail. Perhaps this is Drukin’s intent, for it to be shown in an uncomfortable and unending silence.

‘There’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.’

Source: Fox Home Entertainment

Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Editor Rating

  • Rated 3 stars
  • Good

Review Summary:

Martha Marcy May Marlene - a young woman escapes from a dangerous cult and tries to reclaim a normal life with her family.

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