Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Running Time: 102 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * ½ (out of four)

When we first meet Martha, she is one of several young women and men living at a hippie-like commune in the Catskills of New York. There, she is known as Marcy May, a name bestowed upon her by the group’s older, father-like leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Name changes are just one way in which the newest members of the community are “cleansed” of the lives they are trying to leave behind. Other “cleansing” methods are decidedly more prurient. Even so, Martha has devoted a full two years to the group before deciding to run away early one morning. After a desperate call from a pay phone, Martha finds herself living with her estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), neither of whom have any idea where Martha has spent the last 24 months. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Martha is not altogether in her right mind. With an almost childlike ignorance of personal boundaries, Martha is emotionally fragile and increasingly paranoid. Her ties to the commune, even if purely psychological, are proving difficult to break.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a case of a movie being less than the sum of its parts. As Martha, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to identical twin megastars Mary-Kate and Ashley) is hauntingly effective. Her round, looking-glass eyes convey as much innocence as they do brokenness, as much trust as they do horror. She is demure and seductive and equally convincing in both respects, even as Martha, never completely her own person, remains oblivious to these traits. The tone of the film is also expertly maintained. It is pensive and unsettling, often in an eerily understated way. For these reasons, any five-minute segment, considered in isolation from the rest of the film, indicates that the film is a good one, perhaps even great. Only by considering the movie in its entirety does it become clear how lacking in substance it really is. The main problem lies at the very heart of the film—the cult from which Martha escapes. The group just isn’t well-defined. It is never quite clear what their purpose or intent is, and the more sinister they are revealed to be, the less motive is apparent behind their actions. As much as one might hope otherwise, the mysteriousness of the community proves not to be a cinematic device meant to increase suspense, but a shortcoming of writer/director Sean Durkin’s script. Durkin clearly has a talent for making movies. He just needs to spend more time on developing the underlying stories.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more!! I felt like I was the only one surfing the internet that didn't actually love this movie...felt like the mood setting was heavy-handed, the ending contrite and intentionally oblique, and while the acting was for the most part brilliant, the story telling was more about mood or ambiance than actual story-telling, which in my opinion, is the basic goal and what movies are supposed to do; tell stories!! Been looking for an alternative to ROTTEN TOMATOES.COM which seems to be more about what critics think we should like rather than what actually has merit lately, and I feel like I am finally home! Keep reviewing and I'll keep commenting...Thanks!