Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene, a title I still struggle with, is a disturbing psychological drama. It concerns the mental examination of a girl damaged by a cult. Though cult may not be the right word. It feels more like a self-styled agrarian community, a hippie commune if you will. There is no mention of any sort of religious devotion after all. Just farming and one man’s peculiar stranglehold over the obedient men and women who follow him. As the story opens, Martha escapes the cult and calls her sister whom she hasn’t seen for 2 years. Despite now being free, she is constantly haunted by images from her past. So much so that at times the present and the past blur so seamlessly it‘s difficult to determine when things are taking place. Sometimes it’s not evident whether she merely imagined particular incidents or actually experienced them.

It can be gratifying when a filmmaker challenges us to come to our own conclusions. However it’s one thing to piece together clues to understand an intelligently told story, but it’s quite another to burden the viewer with completing the chronicle on their own from a sketchy outline. A proficient screenwriter has a casual obligation to express a meaningful narrative. To ambiguously reveal a tale does not mean writing underdeveloped individuals with behavior that makes no sense. The inconsistencies are too numerous to list here, but the members of the cult inexplicably suffer through inhuman conditions with no apparent benefit. Why did Martha originally leave home? What attracted her to the cult? Why did she remain in the cult? Why did anyone tolerate this cult for that matter? Why didn’t the cult try to stop her when she escaped? Why wasn’t her sister more inquisitive? Was her sister even concerned? The spectator watches in vain for explanations that never arrive. One can infer some answers to these important questions based on observations from what little story is presented. It recounts pieces of a life, but the events aren’t fully formed. Only suggestions of personalities and situations divulged in a haphazard fashion. That isn’t nearly as compelling as a fully formed narrative. Some might call this refreshingly uncertain. I call it lazy storytelling.

What saves the movie (barely) for me were two pitch perfect performances in newcomer Elizabeth Olsen as Martha and actor John Hawkes as Patrick. Olsen is the perfect manifestation of slowly building paranoia in Martha. At one moment she appears to be at ease, another moment she is wildly unstable. It’s a stunning achievement and it definitely captures the audiences’ attention and draws you into her struggle. As the enigmatic leader, John Hawkes is a malevolent force that induces dread. He’s quiet, but commanding. As the man in charge, he leads by instilling fear. An uncomfortable incident in the forest has Patrick trying to convince Martha to shoot at a dying cat. Then when unable to do so, he commands her to fire at one of the males in the group. Yet it’s never clear why these kids don‘t simply leave. It’s not hard to see why this has earned raves. In this day and age, a good performance is enough to hype a film and there’s several here.

It’s the acting that elevates this feature. I was sufficiently connected to truly care what happens to Martha. It’s a smart, well acted character study, just not a rewarding one. True to the nature of the script, the very last scene remains irritatingly cryptic. After it was over I actually thought the projectionist had forgotten to load a reel of film. I can fill in the blanks, but as the culmination of everything we have witnessed before, it’s far from a satisfying resolution. Throughout the drama, the pacing is so deliberate, it’s inert. You won’t realize it until the picture is over, but it’s an exercise in frustration. I’m convinced a great movie exists in there…somewhere.

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3 Responses to “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

  1. Tsk.. too bad, I kinda wanted to see this… I think it’ll be a ‘wait for the DVD’ now….

  2. Loved your review, Mark! Very thorough analysis 🙂 I hope it opens here soon. I’m very curious to see it.

  3. I kept waiting for something great to bring it all together, but that never happened. The ending left me speechless. Ugh

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