Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
No, seriously, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is about a girl who goes to live with her estranged sister after escaping from a backwoods cult of sorts in the Catskills. As she tries to readjust to a life of relative normalcy, the girl begins reliving the highs and lows that highlighted the last two years of her life and changed her in ways she can’t seem to shake. It doesn’t take long for her sister to realize how truly messed up her little sis is, and as the memories get worse, so does their already-strained relationship.
The only things I knew to expect from this movie were a stellar performance from an Olsen sister who no one knew existed, and a title that everyone in the world was going to mix up every time they said it. The good news is that Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t disappoint and I’m not mumbling the words after “Martha” any more, but the bad news is that I’m still not sure about everything else.
If I could do it all over again and see this movie for the first time, I’d watch it with the mindset of someone going into a horror movie rather than a drama or thriller. Aside from the technicals and the acting, the most lasting aspect of this movie was how totally upsetting it was. Not upsetting in the sense that I was disappointed, but upsetting in terms of tone, context, and the universal truth that cults are fucked up. Ultimately, this movie seems to be about two things: how easily people can be preyed upon and how weak-minded and -willed some people can be. I recently read a blurb stating how this movie’s about facing your fears, but I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. If the desired effect from writer/director Sean Durkin was to leave me unsettled and feeling like a good long shower was in order, then he succeeded with flying colors. But even so, there needs to be something more.
Maybe it’s a matter of preference, but I have trouble seeing the point in a movie about a vulnerable girl being manipulated to where she can’t mentally escape from her past even after physically escaping from it. Now, if you look at it from a horror standpoint, that premise could go a long way. But since that wasn’t the angle I was watching from, I ended up leaving the theater two hours later wondering, “What was I supposed to gain from that?” If there had been more development among Olsen’s character, Martha, her sister, and her sister’s husband instead of them trying to get crazy Martha to open up, then getting frustrated because Martha won’t tell them anything, then doing it over and over again until everyone’s just fed up with the whole situation, perhaps there’d be more to be gained.
But as is, it just feels repetitive, like Durkin didn’t know where to take the plot after Martha flew the coop and settled on a fistful of awkward silences peppered with some melodramatic screaming matches. And, folks, that’s no place to settle. Wasn’t sure how this was all going to wrap up either, and when it finally did, it was mighty ambiguous. Not that I need my movies to finish with a bow on top and the ambiguity wasn’t really an issue until a majority of the theater echoed “What?” when the screen went black, but this was one instance where I could have gone for some sense of finality.
Then again, Durkin sure has a way with the camera. I loved how dark, faded and naturally ominous everything looked, I loved all the match cuts he used to transition the plot from Martha’s past to her present, and I loved the mood he created with such a subtle hand. Pretty impressive how truly seedy you can make a person look simply by emphasizing the clothes that don’t fit them. For a script that felt like it was running in circles, it helps that Durkin direction and his cast can pick up the slack.
And getting back to Elizabeth Olsen who’s doing the family name some serious favors since Mary-Kate started sucking face with Ben Kingsley. For such a tortured role, let alone a debut role, she totally commands the screen and brings a good deal of complexity to a character who seems to have a lot going on upstairs. She’s no joke, I don’t know if she’s got Oscar written all over her anything, but she can totally carry a movie. And backing her up is John Hawkes doing the whole Teardrop thing while being creepy as all hell as the cult leader who totally effs up Martha’s being.
It’s fun to write about movies I hate, it’s fun to write about movies I love, but it’s the ones that leave me feeling borderline indifferent despite their accomplishments that I always have the most trouble with. Martha Marcy May Marlene is what happens when Big Love meets Dogtooth, and while it absolutely excels in terms of acting and film making, I wish I could say the same about the story and script. I won’t call it disappointing because my expectations weren’t that high to begin with and I really did like the things it did well, it just kinda sucks to watch a movie for two hours and then wonder why you just spent two hours watching it?
The one thing I will say out of all these conclusions I’ve drawn is that while this is an ambiguous movie, arguably to a fault, it’s also a movie that one can potentially draw a lot of meaning out of it or sit there with a big question mark on their face at the end credits. I appreciate that about it, I just happened to be in the latter category, and I don’t consider my Verdict up there the final say in the slightest. This thing is definitely different in the way it tells its story and the story it’s trying to tell, and while that’s very much something to applaud, it just didn’t come together for me as well as it could have.