Fox // 2011 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 7th, 2012
You can get away, but you can never escape.
Remember when Martha Marcy May Marlene became one of the breakout films of Sundance 2011, only to pretty much disappear upon theatrical release and be totally overlooked during awards season? Now's your chance to catch up on what you more than likely missed -- one of the best movies of 2011.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House) has just escaped from what is essentially a cult secluded in the Catskills, where she has lived for the last two years. She calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, Deadwood), who is living a quiet, upscale life with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, Coach). Martha needs to stay with them. Between the rift that has developed between the sisters after not speaking for years and Martha's increasingly strange behavior and inability to adjust to normal life, questions begin to arise as to what exactly she experienced during her days in the Catskills. And who is calling the house and hanging up? And is it possible that the "stranger" in town is actually a member of the cult? Did she not escape after all?
Writer/director Sean Durkin's debut film, the 2011 drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, caught me totally off guard. Not because I didn't expect it to be good. I did. I remember the buzz about the movie coming out of last year's Sundance festival, and in particular the rave reviews surrounding the film's lead, Elizabeth Olsen (better known as the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley). Yes, this was the "other Olsen sister" movie, but the positive word of mouth surrounding it had my curiosity piqued. What caught me off guard is that the movie isn't at all what I thought it would be. All that I knew about the movie is that it was about a girl who escapes from a cult, and that plot description (plus the fact that it was a festival darling) had me imagining some small-scale indie drama about a family shattered by one daughter's choices. And, yes, Martha Marcy May Marlene is that movie (in a way, at least). What I was not prepared for is that the film plays much more like an increasingly paranoid thriller that would make Roman Polanski proud.
So much of the film's power is derived from its editing. While hardly the first movie to unfold out of chronological order (a trend that became annoyingly overused for a while, thanks to the success of movies like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and Memento), the sequencing in Martha Marcy May Marlene isn't just a stylistic conceit. Durkin is very smart about how long to withhold certain pieces of information, letting it leak out in drips when the greatest impact can be assured. And, unlike many more conventional horror movies (not that I would classify this as a horror movie, but a case could easily be made), the movie grows increasingly tense and suspenseful the more we know. Credit to both Durkin's script and to the performances by all of the cult members -- but in particular Olsen and John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) as the charismatic leader -- for making every beat convincing. It's difficult for an adjusted audience to understand the choices to lead to joining such a group, but Martha Marcy May Marlene makes every moment believable; we don't agree with it, but we can see just how it happens at every turn.
Yet, as the movie unfolds, moments begin to take on possible new meanings, and it's here that I must be careful not to give anything away. The deeper we get into the events that took place while Martha was living with the commune and its impact on her life with Lucy and Ted, the more we have to question some of what the movie is showing us. Are these memories? Are they dreams? Can what Martha is seeing be trusted? I shouldn't say any more. Suffice it to say that it leads to one of the more divisive endings in recent memory, your reaction to which will be entirely dependent on whether or not you're on board with the movie's logic. I happen to love it.
Fox's Blu-ray of Martha Marcy May Marlene boasts a satisfying technical presentation, but falls a little short in the bonus features department. The movie appears in a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that has a great film-like look, doing right by the movie's warm, sun-soaked photography and never losing detail during the darker nighttime sequences. The lossless 5.1 audio track is very effective, always making sure that the (often hushed and whispered) dialogue can be heard clearly while ratcheting up the suspense with ambient sounds and the occasional soundtrack sting. It's a good mix that's never overpowering, striking just the right balance between stark silence and mounting dread. Perfect for this movie.
The supplemental section is a major letdown. I don't need Durkin to spill all of his secrets or spell out all of the film's meanings (there is a major debate at the center of the film that I don't even want spoiled), but a little discussion or reflection on putting it all together would have been nice. Instead, the bonus features are just the standard collection of interviews and press kit featurettes that gloss over the making of the movie on such a surface level that most of it might as well have not been included at all: an interview with Elizabeth Olsen, an interview with Durkin and his producers, a very brief overview of the movie and a pretty worthless interview with a "cult expert." Also included is the movie's trailer and some footage of co-star John Hawkes performing "Marcy's Song," which is sort of effective only because of the way the song lingers in your memory after seeing the movie. The only decent bonus feature is a short film made by Durkin, "Mary Last Scene," that served as the inspiration for Martha Marcy May Marlene.
After years spent raging against the machine, I've come to terms in my old age that the Academy Awards are fairly worthless barometers of what the "best" movies are of a given year. Everyone should just like what they like, and if your favorite movies win Oscars, great, but the fact that they (most often) don't shouldn't take anything away from their quality. In a more just world, Martha Marcy May Marlene would have scored a bunch of nominations (at least) for Best Picture, Best Director, actress for Elizabeth Olsen and supporting actor for John Hawkes. Unfortunately, the movie just isn't as good in the Academy's eyes as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Their loss.
Seek this one out on DVD and (preferably) Blu-ray. Try to go in with an open mind, knowing as little about it as possible. It's a great movie, and one that audiences are going to be discovering for years to come, wondering why they hadn't heard anything about it before.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film
* Music Video
* Official Site