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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

November 1, 2011

6/10 Jonestowns

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 2:40 am

    While your review hasn’t deterred me from seing the film, I was hoping to hear it was a little better.

    • November 1, 2011 2:42 am

      *seeing. I hate it when I subit a comment with typos.

    • November 1, 2011 12:17 pm

      Was hoping I’d like it more as well, but I can also see how someone would like it more than I did. Hope you’re one of ’em!

  2. November 1, 2011 2:31 pm

    Ah, not that good, eh? Been looking forward to it…
    BUT you kinda made my day. A couple of months ago a friend and I were at the supermarket and this (very bitchy) actress was standing with us in line, and ever since then we’ve been racking our brains trying to come up with her name. And you just solved the problem! Sarah Paulson!

    • November 1, 2011 2:33 pm

      Hahaha! This movie is the first time I’ve ever actually noticed her existence, but geez, she’s getting off a bad foot. Glad to make your day though!

      • December 21, 2011 5:08 pm

        Watched it now, and gotta say I really liked Sarah Paulson in it… feeling ambiguous about the rest of it, too. I thought the parts at her sister’s house were good, but the whole cult thing was way too cliche.

      • December 23, 2011 12:25 pm

        Funny, I was the complete opposite. Thought the sister’s house was a weird direction to take the story in (mainly because it went nowhere,) and as cliche as the cult thing was, I thought it was interesting seeing what messed her up so bad. Solid cast though, Paulson included.

  3. November 2, 2011 5:14 am

    Interesting review, I personally liked much more then you did! Olsen’s performance and Durkin’s direction are, as you said, very good and I have to mention Marcy’s song, which is beautiful and haunting!
    I have to agree with you on the matter of movies that leave you feeling bordeline- that happened to me with Tree of Life and it’s annoying!

    • November 2, 2011 5:20 pm

      Thanks, and glad you liked the movie! Can’t say a negative word about Olsen and Durkin’s direction, but the other issues were just too big to ignore. And as much as I liked The Tree of Life, I can’t knock anyone for thinking otherwise. If you can’t explain the dinosaurs, then don’t even bother.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. November 2, 2011 3:45 pm

    Two Deadwood alums! Although I only like Hawkes. It’s a shame that you didn’t care for this more. I’ve had high hopes for it. Still waiting for it to come to Reno.

    • November 2, 2011 5:18 pm

      Totally forgot she was in Deadwood, but I’m with you, Hawkes is the only memorable one. Wish I’d like this more as well, but alas, it just didn’t do it for me even though there was quite a bit to appreciate. Hope you like it more than I did!

  5. November 9, 2011 12:48 pm

    Just saw this over the weekend. I liked it well enough, but it started to drag in the second half and I still don’t know what to make of that ending. It seemed to piss off a lot of people in the audience, and my girlfriend had pretty much the same reaction as you did (“I wasted two hours for THAT??”). Still, I was really impressed with Olsen’s performance. She’s got a bright future ahead of her.

    • November 11, 2011 9:07 am

      Olsen was really good, can’t knock her in the least, but yeah, I’m still at a loss as to why the post-cult stuff went absolutely nowhere. Weak, yo.

  6. November 26, 2011 3:49 pm

    I agree with most of what you said, though I liked it a little bit more. The script definitely could’ve used a few tweaks, but I really liked the juxtaposition that is done here, and along with that the editing. And Olsen, my oh my.

    It did leave me wanting more, however.

    • November 28, 2011 8:26 am

      Yeah, the editing was really good, all those match cuts worked like gangbusters. So did Olsen.

      Can’t argue that it was well made, just wish there had been more of a reason for the movie’s existence, still not sure what I was supposed to gain from it. Alas…

  7. December 24, 2011 1:16 am

    That’s the thing. I just didn’t find it believable that she suffered all this trauma from this group of Urban Outfitter models. I couldn’t connect with that character at all. Maybe that’s why I preferred the parts at her sister’s house, ’cause that felt much realer.

    • January 2, 2012 3:14 pm

      Hahaha. I totally get that. Still not sure what it was that so many saw in this movie?

  8. February 24, 2012 4:10 pm

    I went for it with a psychological angle. Many different psychological elements that fascinated me, but then most people don’t love that kind of thing as much as I do.That’s one reason to love this film.
    Plus the scenery was amazing!

    • March 23, 2012 11:43 am

      I will give you the scenery, ’cause this movie looked damn good even if the context didn’t do much for me.


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