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review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Friday 17 February 2012

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Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin, starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson & Hugh Dancy.

Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the plight of Martha, a young woman who flees from a cult in upstate New York, where she has been living as Marcy May, and seeks the support and protection of her estranged sister. The ensuing story is an exploration of trauma, indoctrination and hope.

Granted, there are elements of the film which are not wholly original. The dynamic between Marcy, her sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband, Ted, treads familiar ground and could have been lifted verbatim from any number of films produced in the last 40 years (Most recently, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia). However, the film manages to avoid becoming a drama of family dysfunction, and any rifts in Martha and Lucy’s past are acknowledged, but not trawled over for the duration, as in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Rather, the sisters’ past is used to add depth to the character of Martha, and perhaps inform us as to how she found herself in a cult.

Ah, yes – the cult! I don’t wish to reveal too much about this element of the narrative, as it provides some of the most compelling viewing in the film. John Hawkes delivers a sinister performance as the enigmatic cult leader and pseudo-preacher, Patrick. Visually, he bears a pretty striking resemblance to Charles Manson, and Durkin seems to use this to his advantage, reminding us of the peculiar American-ness of the cult. As I watched the film, I was constantly reminded of the Manson Family, Jonestown and Ted Kaczynski. In turn, the landscape of the Catskills (which is photographed beautifully) began to become synonymous with those figures, as though the American wilderness needs a cult to make it complete. ‘Americana’ begins to develop sinister undertones.

Elizabeth Olsen is, quite simply, a revelation. In her debut, she delivers acting prowess that tramples her more famous sisters’ back catalogues, and her face alone is dynamic enough to sustain the 101 minutes of viewing. In no two frames is she the same, and her striking features are at once wise and childlike, which affords complexity to her character.

Overall, the film serves as a cautionary tale of the effects of faux-losophies, and a modern, indie version of Stockholm Syndrome. It is saved, however, from the doldrums, through its protagonist: a fragile young woman, whom we desperately want to succeed.