Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 2011
Directed by
Sean Durkin
102 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Synopsis: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a troubled young girl who has spent two years living in a commune in the Catskills with a cult-like group led by charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes). She runs away and rings her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who takes her to stay with the up-market holiday home she share with her architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). But the values Martha has absorbed from the cult are at odds with the middle class couple, and increasing traumatisation and paranoia threaten to even further damage Martha’s fragile psyche.

This dark and disturbing film will most likely not please many people. It deals with the darker side of human nature, even worse for being disguised as something worthwhile. The youngsters who live on the communal farm are mainly displaced girls, with a smattering of young men. The girls are initiated into farm life, sharing chores, clothing, and sleeping quarters. But most sinisterly, they are all expected to sleep with Patrick and are brainwashed into believing that this is something really special. It is, of course, a form of rape, but since most of the girls come from already traumatised backgrounds, and have low self-esteem, they want see it as a positive development in their lives. They need someone to “love” them.

Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the “time frame toggle” mode of handling its plot. It works well, acting as a way for contrasting the two conflicting lifestyles – that of the cult and that of Lucy and Ted. It also allows us to understand that Martha in some ways is confused as to what was then, and what is now, so damaged is her mind. Many scenes are superbly edited, segueing seamlessly between past and present. Even Martha’s name is a total confusion; Marcy May is the name given to her by Patrick, while Marlene is a name all women on the farm are expected to use when answering the phone – another subtle form of mind control.

Director Sean Durkin cleverly builds up the menace, showing us that scary doesn’t need to be loud and in your face. Much use is made of silence, along with a sort of one note stringed instrument tone that builds almost unbearable tension as everything leads to the incident that tipped Martha over the edge.

At first we feel vaguely favourable towards life on the farm. That doesn’t last long. Even though Patrick styles himself as a leader and father figure to the youngsters, he is predatorily creepy. Hawkes also appeared to excellent effect in Winter’s Bone (2010), another film set in back-woods America, and he is again wonderful, in a sinister way, as the cult leader, one who recalls the infamous Charles Manson. Using a cajoling manner he gets the trust of the young people but his agenda is repugnant.

This film is a wonderful showcase for young Olsen, of whom we will no doubt see much more.  She has a mesmerising face, which the camera caresses with ultra close-ups, and her ability to capture the fragility and estrangement of Martha’s emotional state is magnificent.

Whilst thematically the film raises interesting issues, it is its haunting emotional quality that really lasts. However, as part of this approach there is a very unexpected, abrupt and ambiguous ending which really left me wondering if it is even more disturbing than it appears.




Want more about this film?

search youtube  search wikipedia  

Want something different?

random vintage best worst