Review of Martha Marcy May Marlene

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Elizabeth Olsen stars in this 2011 thriller directed by Sean Durkin. Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.
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Movie Review: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

-- Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2011
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Genre: Drama

Filmgoers who like happy endings where everything wraps up nicely should step far away from "Martha Marcy May Marlene." This dark and gritty film is thought provoking, intriguing, and even disturbing at times, and it isn't the type of film with a happy ending. From the moment critics first got wind of this independent drama, word spread that it was one of the top cult films of the year. Those who watch it will understand why it resonates with so many people.

The film opens with a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, "Silent House") working on a farm. After a hard day in the fields, she joins a group at dinner. The room is nearly silent, and as soon as the men finish eating, the women sit down to dinner. The early moments of the film are dark and intense, leading the viewer to wonder what this film is about.

That becomes clear when Martha runs away in the middle of the night and hides in the woods near the farm. Director Sean Durkin brings the camera in close on her face, showing her panic and fear as the lights and sounds of the search party draws near. Durkin then jars the audience by jumping to a pay phone with bright lights covering Martha. Even though she shakes in the night, she still finds the confidence to call her sister for help.

Once Martha finds herself in the safety of her sister's home, the film becomes even more jarring. Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, "American Horror Story") is unhappy with her life. She and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, "Confessions of a Shopaholic") want to have a child, but she finds herself taking care of her sister. The two have a fractured relationship, and the film reveals that they were never close. The film then jumps from the present day to the time that Martha spent on the farm.

Durkin frequently jumps between scenes without giving the viewer a break. One memorable moment comes when Martha goes boating with Ted. As she jumps into the water, the film automatically jumps back to a swim she took on the farm. The viewers see how Martha met those living on the farm and her first experiences with their leader Patrick (John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone").

During those flashback scenes, the viewers learn why Martha fell under his spell. As she reveals that her mother passed away and that she isn't close to anyone, Patrick pulls her close and treats her like a daughter. When he grows abusive and shows his tyrannical side, some viewers might be shocked at the sudden change.

While many reviews hailed the work of Olsen, Hawkes is just as strong in his role. When he tells Martha that she's his favorite of the group, he looks as warm and comforting as anyone's father. All of that changes when he suddenly pulls her into his bed. Hawkes has the talent to move effortlessly from comforting to twisted and back again without missing a beat.

Olsen looks enough like her older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley that some of her scenes are disturbing. Though she isn't happy sleeping with Patrick, she goes through the motions because that is what others expect. Her first scenes in the farm show a sad young woman yearning for something special in her life. The later scenes show a completely different woman, the type of woman who finds herself under the thrall of a cult leader and willing to force other women into his bed.

Dancy and Paulson are both talented actors, but the two lack the punch for this film. Paulson sometimes seems to struggle with her role as a woman who wants a child but doesn't understand that she has a child in her home. When she shouts at Martha for ruining her life, viewers will feel Martha's pain, especially after seeing her life on the farm. Dancy does an adequate job, but his character often feels like something tacked on at the last minute.

While they aren't the strongest actors in the film, they are desperately needed in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Had the film only told the story of her life on the farm, the film wouldn't function as well. The viewers need the back story of her home life and her experiences in the present day to contrast her life with the cult. As dark as this film is, the ending is even darker. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" doesn't wrap up the story, but it ends on a note that will amaze viewers.

Rating 4 out of 5