Movie Review – Martha Marcy May Marlene

It has taken me a while to finally get around to reviewing this film.  I saw it about several days ago while I was out on a brunch and film outing with my friend and fellow blogger Heather Physioc.  I knew that I wanted to see this movie after first seeing the trailer before the film, Another Earth, and more so because of John Hawkes and that chilling song he sings at the end of the trailer.  Diving more into the film through curiosity yielded an interesting film, one that looks to play a damaging psychological game on the viewer with it’s tale of a runaway girl from a cult-like family.

So I went, I saw it and I discussed the movie afterwards.  I didn’t know what to feel about the movie, which leads me to my dilemma about writing the review.  It’s not that I didn’t get it, but rather what to really talk about.  To say the least, this is a harrowing tale about a young girl trying to rid herself of a destructive past and powerful hold that her former life had on her.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens with several scenes of a life on a farm.  The men working hard in the field and the women are preparing dinner for the evening.  The men of the farm all sit down for dinner while the women wait to eat until they are finished.  During the early mornings, Martha (new comer Elizabeth Olsen) escapes into town and phones her sister, whom she hasn’t been in contact for over two years.  Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson)  takes her out of the Catskill Mountain area to the upper side of Connecticut to her lake house.  Martha meets Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and she tries to assimilate back into her normal life, one that leaves behind her time with the family on the farm.  It isn’t easy though as Martha tries to shake the memories of the cult family and each little new venture into her new life, triggers a memory that haunts her, immobilizing her progress in being normal.  Martha must learn to grapple with the new surroundings, but often fearing that her past will come back to get her.

The film shrouds Martha’s past through the use of a non-linear story structure.  The film starts out with the present, Martha’s departure from the cult family and her subsequent arrival at her sister’s lake house in order to distance herself from the past.  Though little is ever really said from Martha about her time away, small things trigger a flashback to her time on the farm.  Her arrival, her meeting with Patrick, the patriarch of the farm played by the brilliant John Hawkes.  These flashbacks happen often in the movie, sometimes marking a connection between the current predicament of Martha and a particular memory that has a strong meaning to her.  It’s chilling to see these flashbacks, almost resembling a Manson-like connection, but there is no religious connection to be had with this group.  I think that this is the most unsettling aspect of the film.  John Hawkes plays this benevolent man, one who isn’t a preacher, one who doesn’t have some sort of perceived power.  He only offers safety, a family and place to live out your lives.  This is the unseen power dynamic that makes Martha’s fractured life all the more mysterious.  Patrick’s only power is that he has been able to keep those at the farm with him, even with the things that transpire, it’s still frightening to see how charismatic he is at keeping them all together.

While John Hawkes has an important role, he is only on screen for about less than a third of the movie.  It’s a smart move to show less of him so that we the audience aren’t sure what really went on.  We only get the snippets of him through Martha’s flashbacks, effectively keeping important details from us and forcing us to pay just a bit more attention to the film.  It is great to see Hawkes again on screen, especially after his role in Winter’s Bone, but the real star of the film is first timer Elizabeth Olsen.  Quite, fragile and damaged, Olsen is able to drift between personalities seamlessly.  At times she can be seen as having a glimmer of happiness, but then immediately a memory of the cult will bring down her psyche and push her further away from a normal life.  The psychological damage that Marcy has is shown through the flashbacks of the time at the farm with the cult.  She is given a new name, Marcy May, built up with encouragement and freedom to live her life, and broken through tough love from Patrick.  She must learn to give herself completely to Patrick, which even entails a rape scene that plays out in the darkness of a barn.  It’s unsettling to witness something like this on screen, but the aftermath is much more than we can imagine.

Director Sean Durkin has created a movie in which so little is really given that we aren’t sure as to what is really a memory and what is real.  Martha’s paranoia stems from her memories bleeding into her current life an through the use of a non-linear story structure, Durkin keeps us guessing at was is really transpiring on screen.  It’s a moody film, one that shifts from drama to thriller and then back again on a dime.  I found the story structure a bit jarring, not difficult to follow mind you, but it just seemed to lean on the use of memories and flashbacks to fracture important moments in Martha’s life.  It might seem like it was cool thing to do, but it just kills a lot of emotional momentum instead of building it up.  There is a compelling and engaging story to be told, but the way it unfolds might turn off some viewers of the film.  The ending of the film itself kind of follows this new trend in Hollywood about the unresolved conflict or even completing the film.  Personally I found it abrupt, but in some ways fitting for the tense, psychological moments that the film pushed us towards.  I think a lot of people will be unhappy with the ending, but that might be the intention of Durkin.  So little is known about the past life of Martha and the time with the cult, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise how the ending leaves us feeling.

When you break down the film, this is about as close to a psychological study of cult victims that we can get.  The reluctance of Martha to discuss her time there is tempered with only fragments of rape, indoctrination, and subsequent psychological toying with Martha.  The most haunting aspect of the film is really how controlling and damaging the hold that Patrick has on Martha.  There is one thing that I think helps understand the hold that Patrick has on Martha and what it means to strip her of the life that she once lived.  The scene in which John Hawkes, eerily and hauntingly belts out a song for Martha, or Marcy May as he calls her, holds a bit of truth in how Martha comes to live with the cult for years.  The song is ironically called Marcy’s song, which was originally performed by folk singer Jackson Frank.  Below is an excerpt of the lyrics:

Well she, she’s just a picture
Who lives on my wall
Well she, she’s just a picture
And the reason, reason, reason it is so small
With a smile so inviting and a body so tall
She, she’s just a picture
Just a picture
That’s all

The song wins over Martha and enraptures the group of followers.  But for me, the lyrics hold a certain regard that Patrick has for his flock.  They are just distant memories or a snapshot of what their past lives were.  He collects them and places them on the farm, holding on to them and using their past lives as a reminder as to why they belong with him.  It’s almost too unsettling to listen to John Hawkes perform the song on screen, but it is also beautiful at the same time.  He exudes the charisma needed to get them to love him and I personally couldn’t look away when he played.

The tone, the story and the acting is incredible and haunting all at the same time.  I hope that this is the film that pushed Elizabeth Olsen out from the shadow of her other twin sister’s spotlight and surely, with her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, will be seeing a lot of her in more dramatic roles.  Her role in this film is truly captivating and convincing.  John Hawkes practically steals the show with the charismatic, creepy cult leader who holds sway on not only Martha’s life, but the audiences attention.  I really hope that he gets a lot more prominent character roles in future movies, but if he doesn’t at least he can fall back on his singing career.  This is a solid movie with a couple of flaws, namely the use of the non-linear story, but it is made by the solid acting and beautiful cinematography.

Rating: 4/5

Bonus video of John Hawkes singing Marcy’s Song.

About Nick
I am just another blogger putting his thoughts into a website. My love is movies so most of my musings will be movie related. I work as an online marketer for an advertising company and when I am not earning a paycheck, I moonlight as a vigilante film blogger.

4 Responses to Movie Review – Martha Marcy May Marlene

  1. I guess that abruptly cutting the ending short is the new hotness in Hollywood, and I can live with that since I have some assumptions as to how it played out after the movie ended, but it’s a little obnoxious. I really enjoyed the premise of the movie, and thought it was a most excellent presentation, but it felt incomplete. Does she eventually change for the better? Does she just resign herself to being “damaged” and go on in life being “not normal”? Or does she cave in and go back to where things were comfortable and she felt like she belonged?

  2. Pingback: Trailer Time! – Silent House & Upside Down « Another Plot Device

  3. Pingback: Movie of the Day – Martha Marcy May Marlene « Another Plot Device

  4. Pingback: Movie of the Day – Martha Marcy May Marlene « Another Plot Device

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