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Case Number 23229: Small Claims Court

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Fox // 2011 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 30th, 2012

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Becker hangs out at airports selling copies of his reviews done in origami.

Editor's Note

Our review of Martha Marcy May Marlene (Blu-ray), published March 7th, 2012, is also available.

The Charge

"It takes time for people to find their role in a new family."

The Case

She was born Martha but rechristened "Marcy May" when she fell in with a cult, where women are held as sexual and servile supplicants and are instructed to give their name as "Marlene" when they answer the phone. Her reasons for leaving the cult are a bit clearer than her reasons for joining it, but just a bit.

Martha escapes to the home of her sister and her new husband, not so much because she missed her family, but because she has nowhere else to go. While the couple—unaware of where she'd been—tries to make her comfortable, Martha is disruptive, sometimes frighteningly so.

She is also terrified, wracked with memories of the cult, unable to loosen their grip, and fearful that she's not done with them.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a hauntingly disturbing film, a Sundance hit, and one of 2011's better indie productions. A moody psychological thriller, it features a surprisingly assured, top-flight performance by Elizabeth Olsen, heretofore probably best known as the younger sister of Full House twins Mary-Kate and Ashley. Olsen has won a number of critics' awards for this performance, and while she might not have been deemed quite ready to play in the Oscar "big leagues" for 2011, she is a talent to watch, and a real revelation here.

Writer-director Sean Durkin doesn't really tell us anything new about cults, but that's not the point. Durkin skillfully builds tension through an increasing sense of paranoia, cross-cutting between Martha's life with her sister and her world as Marcy May—a world that grows ever darker the longer she stays. Many of the story elements are purposefully ambiguous, making the film a stark, unsettling experience, though one that's not quite as fulfilling as it could be.

While Durkin does a good job laying out the events, we never really get inside the characters. For the most part, as drawn, there's really not much to them. Martha's sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, Bug) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, Savage Grace) are not just normal, they're tediously normal, with the sort of upward-mobility pretensions that can be grating. Durkin perhaps makes the point a time or two too many that overarching normality is just as stifling as subjugation, though the parallels are interesting and well handled.

The cult itself—modeled, I'm guessing, on the Manson family, and located on a farm in upstate New York—is also presented a bit vaguely. The initially happy hippie appearance quickly gives way to a farm filled with happy supplicants, all vying to stay in the good graces of leader Patrick (John Hawkes, Winter's Bone). Hawkes is excellent as the confident but skeevy older man who seduces aimless teens and 20-somethings into following him, though the character is pretty much what you'd expect. We know immediately that the bucolic setting is just a front, and the more we see of the Cult of Patrick, the more sinister it all becomes.

But Durkin gives the cult a "big event," something that would draw attention from the outside world; unfortunately, he never quite follows it up. Maybe the world is closing in on Patrick and company while Marcy's away, and she just doesn't know about it—interestingly, Lucy and Ted live lives almost as insulated as the cult members. While this makes for a good thriller and a fascinatingly ambiguous ending, it wipes out any intentions Durkin might have had of making a "serious" film about cults.

While Durkin the writer needs a bit of work, Durkin the director is pretty impressive. Showing a solid eye for atmosphere and detail, Durkin crafts Martha Marcy May Marlene into a fairly fascinating thriller. The ending is especially potent, with the unanswered questions paying off in spades, offering up cryptic non-resolution that works on a number of levels and invites speculation and discussion.

At the center of it all is Olsen, whose performance both keeps the film grounded and elevates it to something more than just another indie thriller. She tells us everything we need to know about this damaged woman through her speech patterns, her body language, small gestures that take on a life of their own. Olsen doesn't grandstand, even when she's afforded the opportunity; it's a performance both brittle and sensitive, internalized but accessible. Durkin might not have created an accessible, fully formed character, but Olsen certainly does.

Fox sent over a screener, so I can't really comment on the tech, though what's here looks fine. Other than trailers for Chronicle and Shame, the only supplement is a short film by Durkin, Mary Last Seen. This 15-minute piece also deals with cults—Patrick's cult, no less—and in some onscreen text notes, Durkin mentions that he wanted to make a film that gave more insight into how people end up joining cults. While Mary Last Seen is an interesting short, like the main feature, it really doesn't offer the insight Durkin seems to hope it would. Starring Brady Corbett, who plays a Patrick follower in Martha Marcy May Marlene, it's a long run-up without much of a payoff. I see where Durkin was going with both his films—the feature is superior in every way, incidentally—but his reliance on audiences interpreting his vision rather than fleshing out his story is a liability.

The Verdict

Durkin is a much better director than he is a writer. Thanks to his work behind the camera and his talented cast, Martha Marcy May Marlene succeeds as a thriller, even if it falls short as a character study or an insightful look at cults. Elizabeth Olsen's performance is impeccable and goes a long way to earning this a recommendation.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Short Film
• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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