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Home » Movies

Movie Review: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Submitted by on October 20, 2011 – 7:13 pm7 Comments

I’ll admit it: If I’d known ahead of time this movie (limited release, Oct. 21) is about a young woman struggling to survive her cult experience, I probably wouldn’t have rushed out to the screening sponsored by the L.A. Times. Elizabeth Olsen (the famous twins’ younger sister) stars as the titular character, who escapes from a cult in the Catskills at the beginning of the movie and goes to live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha doesn’t want to talk about the years she fell out of touch with Lucy and insists she’s fine, that she was simply living with a boyfriend who lied to her and now it’s over. But of course it’s not, as we see the damage gradually emerging and threatening her ability to move on.

Olsen has received lots of buzz since the movie premiered at Sundance and she deserves it. She seems effortless and completely guileless in a role that’s difficult to pull off due to Martha’s capriciousness. The movie incorporates flashbacks to show what happened to her (writer/director Sean Durkin, who did Q & A afterward, said they’re not really flashbacks since Martha’s past and present are all jumbled together in her mind) but it’s always clear when each scene took place because there was much more innocence in Martha’s face before she was ruined by Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult leader. The performance is more striking considering that when Olsen came out (more like she bounced/skipped out) to do the Q &A, she was bubbly and smart and confident, not the first person you’d think of to play a mousy girl in search of herself.

Paulson is also impressive as the sister who desperately wants to know Martha’s secrets but is scared of driving her away again. Lucy’s benign smiles can’t cover up the frustration she feels from being unable to communicate with Martha. Hawkes, after Winter’s Bone, risks being Hollywood’s go-to creepy dude, but he’s so good and oddly charismatic that it’s hard to imagine someone else being more effective.

Durkin can be commended for eliciting strong performances from the cast and for using restraint, allowing the audience to fill in the more disturbing aspects. But his pacing is contemplative since most of the conflicts are internal. Sometimes the score is a little too heavy-handed, as if it were shouting, “Creepy scene alert!” through a bullhorn. And the ambiguous ending…well, it’s hardly satisfying but it’ll certainly stimulate discussions afterward.

Nerd verdict: Finely acted film that May anger and/or disturb you

Photo: Jody Lee Lipes/Twentieth Century Fox

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7 Comments »

  • My mom’s name is Marlene!

    And no, “cult” doesn’t exactly scream “must see,” but your review does. It sounds like it’s excellent. Will have to see if this comes my way.

  • Lauren says:

    We’ve kind of dissected this one ad nauseum to the extent we can since I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m now really looking forward to viewing it with a different eye and discussing further once I’ve seen it. Thanks for the thoughtful review of a difficult movie.

  • EIREGO says:

    I keep hearing about this film and buzz surrounding Olsen’s performance. I like any movie causing me to discuss it afterward. There are far too few films out there that do.

  • I hadn’t heard of this one yet, so it’s great to read your review, PCN. Not sure if I’ll see it {anything with the word ‘creepy’ in the description is enought to get my wuss-hackles rising} but I’m glad to know what it’s about.

  • Thanks for clearing things up because I saw the trailer twice now and both times I was left to wonder what the fuck was this movie about. How’s John Hawkes in this one? He burned his face in my retina as Teardrop Dolly in Winter’s Bone and he look like he picked up where he left off.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    jenn—If my review makes you want to see a movie about a subject that makes you uncomfortable, I consider it quite a compliment. Thank you!

    Lauren—There’s still lots more to dissect after you see it.

    EIREGO—Just make sure you keep the debate civil!

    Shell—I completely understand why “creepy” would make you hesitate.

    Benoit—Hawkes is very good. He’s got this interesting screen presence that makes you unable to look away even though he’s so scary. As I mentioned in the review, he’s oddly charismatic in a creepy role, and almost makes it understandable why Martha would be drawn to him, at least at first.

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