Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen is getting all the buzz for her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she is indeed very good. Without her performance, there would be little to recommend this film, which tries to create a haunting psychological thriller but instead succeeds mostly in creating murkiness.

Olsen is Martha, and as the film begins she sneaks away from a commune she lives in based in the Catskill Mountains. She calls her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes her to her lakeside vacation home in Connecticut. The sisters haven’t spoken in two years, but Olsen reveals nothing of her stay at the commune, instead just saying she was with a boyfriend and broke up.

The film then intercuts between Olsen’s induction and indoctrination into the commune, which is led by the charismatic and just a bit scary John Hawkes. We’re not totally sure of what Hawkes is up to or what his game is, but he seems to snare Olsen by crafting a song about her. This despite her waking up one night to find Hawkes humping her from behind.

In the present, Olsen hangs out in her sister’s house, mostly sleeping, but also displaying that some communal habits die hard, like skinny-dipping in broad daylight or crawling into her sister’s bed while she’s having sex with her husband (Hugh Dancy). All the while she refuses to discuss what happened to her, which I imagine is an understandable psychological response, but also is a convenient plot mechanism.

Of course life on the commune isn’t as wholesome as Olsen imagines. It’s totally patriarchal, as the men are allowed to eat first, and the men seem to have free run sexually (at least Hawkes does). When Olsen realizes they are sort of Manson-Family-lite, she rethinks her position. What starts as burglaries ends in violence, which presumably kick-starts her decision to leave.

Though she does leave, her head still seems to be there. Dancy loses patience with her quickly, and when she accuses him of living his life “wrong” by valuing money and possessions, this while she sleeps under his roof and eats his food, he’s had enough. Olsen makes a critical mistake–she calls her commune, which lets them know where she is.

Olsen is amazingly good, and her performance is mostly subtle. A good deal of it is reflected in her eyes, which express a constant bewilderment at being back in the upper-middle-class. Writer and director Sean Durkin has not given us too much backstory–we see nothing of Olsen before her first day at the commune–but Olsen fills in the gaps with her mannerisms, giving us a portrait of a lost woman.

Hawkes is also very good, despite also having to fill in cracks. I think I was influenced by his equally scary guy in Winter’s Bone. There’s a scene where, while teaching Olsen how to shoot, that we learn that he’s not exactly running a peaceful kibbutz. But I would have liked to see more about what he was up to. Did he have a guiding philosophy, or was he just a sexual predator and low-level criminal?

Much of Durkin’s fingerprints in this film are the frequent cuts between past and present, often done so that the situation is almost identical, whether it be the position Olsen is sitting in or the mood of a scene, such that it can take a moment for the viewer to realize what time period there are in. This can be clever, but ultimately becomes a tedious gimmick.

The ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene (the title refers to the different names Olsen is known by during the film, a suggestion that her identity is not her own) is abrupt and ambiguous. I’m pretty sure I understood what was going on, but as the lights came up I was surrounded by some confused patrons.

My grade for Martha Marcy May Marlene: C+


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

8 responses »

  1. I liked it a lot more than you – I think it’s one of the year’s best so far. I thought it worked as a pyschological thriller, I thought it worked as character study, and I even thought it worked as social commentary to some degree. I also thought the script was ingeniously structured. I agree that the ending was a little abrupt and a flaw but that said I thought it was well executed for what it was.

    Far from being tedious, I thought the editing “gimmick” was one of the movie’s strengths. It was clear that Martha was having a lot of trouble adjusting and I thought was a very effective way of getting the audience to relate to that.

    Just a very strong piece of work.

  2. By the end of the movie, Martha’s sister & her husband had become frustrated and even angry with her psychological state. They find her somewhere to go where she will get help and she finally agrees. Minutes before departing for this place she goes swimming in the lake and we see a man (almost certainly the cult leader) watch her from the shoreline.

    En route shortly after, her transport car stops adjacent to another vehicle, the drivers inter- change and we hear her old nemesis take over at the wheel. We see her brother in law get out and leave her to her fate (pre-arranged by the disaffected couple). Roll the credits. Chilling and clever and without finger prints.

  3. Oh! Is that what happened at the end? Then it was grossly edited and the director miscalculated its interpretation. There was nothing as clear as:
    1. her transport car stops adjacent to another vehicle
    2. the drivers inter- change and we hear her old nemesis take over at the wheel
    3. We see her brother in law get out and leave her to her fate (pre-arranged by the disaffected couple).
    If it had been this clear, it wouldn’t be an abrupt or ambiguous ending, would it? Plus who are the “disaffected” couple?

  4. The depiction provided by Lyn Thorpe is interesting but not at all accurate. Martha’s sister’s husband did not get out of the car at all. After the car stops and drives off again, you see Martha in the backseat and you can here her sister and her husband talking in the front seat. Furthermore, Martha’s face and behavior never change at all. If a switch occurred, don’t you think she would have had some sort of reaction? This is simply one of those endings where they provide a scenario with many possible endings and allow the viewers to create their own endings. It makes people talk about the movie more, which will ultimately generate more interest.

  5. Mark, you are right. Lyn Thorpe, sorry but this is not what happens. Though I’ll admit, a pretty cool idea for an alternate ending.

    This article and the accompanying script of the movie explains what happens.

    I enjoyed the movie, though I wish the director had given more detail. When it ended I almost felt like the whole thing was a tease… but I wan’t that made cause it was good anyway.

  6. Excellent film that purposefully carries the audience through increasing levels of discomfort to the film’s conclusion, which is an unsatisying end for those wanting resolution but I think the only available ending to avoid the film becoming less compelling. The ambiguous ending done badly is only frustrating and unfulfilling but when done well, it follows the audience beyond the last scene as it seeks meaning.

    There are so many cleverly woven pointers in the story that i think it is right to leave what comes next with the audience – that casts the audience directly into paranoia that we had been witnessing build right up to the last two scenes when it turns to, maybe she will not escape them. And the truth is she never will – either psychologically or physically the Cult will remain with her. The alternative endings: suiciding by drowning in the lake, being abducted again or murdered by the Cult, or a cut forward in time to a rehabilitated Martha would all be less fulfilling.

    My ending: she and the man on the rock are about to murder her sister and brother-in-law. Part of her development in the Cult is increasing levels of commitment to her new family and a casting off of her old family: change of name, morality adjustment, cleansing rituals, and I think she was always destined to return to her family for this purpose. That is what was acted out in the earlier murder scene. The stabbing girl appeared from behind the man, did not appear to enter with the group (she was in a nightgown) and I think the man was her father. And that is why the bathroom scene was so compelling as she and Patrick discuss whether she ‘is ready’. She says she is. So what happens next? The black SUV pulls them up along the road, pulls a gun and Martha is confronted with the choice of killing her remaining ‘old’ family. Of course, she may choose not to. To show that scene would require the film to make a moral choice, which I do not think the director wants to do. he wants to remain in the dissonance that Martha feels.

    Or it was just well set up for a sequel ;-)

  7. i side a bit more with Brian than JS on this one. A very sharply observed film driven by an excellent central performance.

    I didn’t think the scenes on the commune were the strength of the film. They were OK but fairly predictable in their Manson-family-lite way as JS says. The real strength of the film is the scenes with Martha and her sister and husband. In particular I was impressed by Paulson’s performance as she manages to capture with great precision someone who genuinely means well but can infuriate others. These scenes underline why Martha went looking for a different life in the commune.

    Rating: B+

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