[Movie Review] Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I find I’m generally only an interesting reviewer when I’m either writing about things I hate or things I love which simultaneously provide me with a platform to tell the people in my life to fuck themselves. The film Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was recently released on DVD, falls into neither of those categories.

It does, however, prove to be a well acted, well made psychological thriller that has maintained a steady presence in my mind in the days following my viewing. And while I can hardly guarantee this editorial will be worth your time, this movie most certainly is.

Plot outline:

After escaping from a cult, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) makes a panicked phone call to her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) who allows her to stay with her and her husband (Hugh Dancy). Things inevitably become strained when the mentally damaged Martha, who struggles to differentiate between her past and present life, is unable to shake the anguish she sustained while under the spell of the cult, whose members may or may not be after her.


Much of the strength of the film is its exemplary acting. For starters, the producers wisely cast the amazing John Hawkes as the cult leader. Arguably the best supporting actor in the business today, Hawkes is excellent as ever as the complex, megalomaniacal Patrick, who works the main character under his spell.

While the entire cast is good, the real standout is Olsen, the less famous but infinitely more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley (look, I love Full House as much as anyone, but I think we can all agree it was a Stamos/Saget/Coulier driven vehicle).

Olsen, in her first major film role, is nothing short of amazing playing a character of almost impossible complexity. With constantly alternating moods, ranging from naive, to paranoid, to promiscuous and beyond, Olsen is as good as good gets.

Due to the fact that the Oscars are a dull and stupid ceremony you couldn’t pay me to watch, I’m not one to get worked up over nomination snubs. But if I was, the fact that Olsen didn’t receive one for Best Actress last year would have infuriated me to no end.

The filmmaking is also first rate. First-time writer/director T. Sean Durkin successfully alternates the story between the present and the past in a sometimes confusing, but incredibly effective fashion that successfully engulfs the viewer into Martha’s world of overwhelmed self-destruction.

And while some people will be frustrated by the ending, which doesn’t really offer much in the way of resolution, I love that Durkin had the courage to let his film wrap in a naturalistic fashion. More than anything, the point I took away from this movie was that its protagonist had made a series of destructive decisions in her past that ultimately gave her no hope for a peaceful future, and providing her with a happy little pre-packaged ending would have undercut the entire purpose.

Final Words:

Its abysmal title aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in a recent years. While it can be difficult to watch at times, this is a smart and thought-provoking film which is both entertaining and worthy of serious discussion, assuming you actually know someone who’s seen it.

More exciting than the movie itself may be the fact that it is the work of a first-time filmmaker and lead actress. If this is what Durkin and Olsen are capable of producing on their first try, it’s hard not to be excited about the careers that lie in front of them.

Final score: 9.0/10 (Outstanding)

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