Martha Marcy May Marlene Review
By Bret Dorman
I consider myself a very well rounded movie goer.
It’s funny that if you make fun of a movie like Transformers 3 a bunch of people will rush to its defense, saying something like “GEESH! It’s a ROBOT FIGHTING movie! It’s supposed to be DUMB! I mean… C’MON! Not every movie has to be an OSCAR WINNER!!!” (The irony is that Transformers 3 will most likely be at least nominated for a technical Oscar like its predecessors (The first scoring 3 noms, two for sound one for visual f/x and the second had one nom for sound))
On the flip side, if you make fun of a movie like The Tree of Life people will rush to it’s defense saying “GEESH! You are just an idiot who clearly doesn’t UNDERSTAND the film and has HORRIBLE TASTE in cinema! I mean, C’MON! This movie will probably be an OSCAR WINNER!!!”
Martha Marcy May Marlene, like any movie, is one that warrants actual discussions about the story, visuals, acting, and real life.
The point is two things:
1) I liked both the movies mentioned as examples; therefore, I’m awesome.
2) I think Elizabeth Olsen has a pretty good shot at being an OSCAR WINNER!!! (which clearly is all that matters/doesn’t matter in anything movie related)
The Story: Marcy (Elizabeth Olsen) manages to escape a creepy cult, lead by Patrick (John Hawks) and is provided comfort by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Tension and paranoia rise as she struggles to find her place inbetween worlds. Also, she goes skinny dipping!!!
Judging by most people’s reactions to Drive, I am assuming the ‘general public’ won’t like this movie. At all. The silences in Drive were at least used to establish a sense of power, rage, and coolness and the movie at the very least had two car chases and some mega-uber-super-duper-ultra violence. Here, the silences are used to create a sense of loss, confusion, time, and in a few cases, authority (but not power in the same way as Drive‘s main character). So there is your general warning, general public. This is a quiet movie.
Having said that, this movie isn’t just about being quiet for the sake of being ‘artsy-fartsy’ or pretentious. Every scene has a purpose to the plot and mood of the story, as well as certain cuts making it hard to distinguish between ‘cult life’ and ‘normal life’. Some people may find that when some scenes start they aren’t sure exactly where this is taking place and get frustrated or think this is a gimmick, but this choice is designed to disorientate, not confuse.
These cult scenes are shown in chunks to us, perhaps as she is getting her memory back and serve the story to raise the tension. At first we hear something outside. Probably nature. Then we see how the cult uses rocks to distract people. Next time we hear the noise it takes on a horrible new meaning.
Furthermore, smaller details like how each group uses drugs to control people highlight how similar they are while how the characters talk to her show their differences. The cult treat her as a ‘teacher and a leader’ while her family views her more as a burden. As Martha tries to find herself, she is given a dilemma. The family that wants her she is afraid of while the family she seeks comfort in doesn’t want her. The result is a person who is not only struggling to find her role in life, but confused as to which role is good for her.
The cast, and not just the main three (or four or five), all do an excellent job of sitting in their silences and pulling off natural performances. Olsen does a lot of sitting, staring, observing, and quiet talking. At one haunting moment she is listening to a song, written for her, while in a public setting and without saying a word you can see the slight nervousness and actual appreciation. Paulson as the sister has some comedic moments and she tries to comfort her sister in a loving way and Hawkes is never one to disappoint, here is grin is both childishly charming and devilishly destructive.
There are a lot of slow, steady moving shots and one shot takes that might seem wasteful at first but actually show an economic approach to the storytelling and what’s in frame is always of importance while sometimes what is left out and left to the imagination can haunt us.
I think a lot of people who see this will be able to identify with the overall theme of feeling lost and trying to find your place in the world. ‘More sophisticated/pretentious movie goers’ (depending on which side you’re on) will appreciate its slow pace and genuine tension build. The movie isn’t perfect, but writer/director Sean Durkin clearly put a lot of effort into it and the result is top notch quality filmmaking.
In Conclusion, Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those movies that if more strived to be like, at least in terms of attention to details and storytelling, we would get a lot less people defending movies and more people praising them.
Final Grade: A
What’s with the title? First, the character is referred by three names. Her real name is Martha. Her cult name given to her by Patrick is Marcy May. When she calls the cult ‘Marlene’ answers and later we see her answering the cult phone and calling herself ‘Marlene’. What makes it a good title is this movie is about her finding her place in the world and how can you do that when you are unsure what to call yourself?
Why don’t they just talk it out? I think this movie covers its bases really well. How can you talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk back or may be unsure what’s real or not. The movie not only handles this well but no scene ever feels like it needs to justify its own existence or put in just to answer these questions.
How did she get there? This is something never shown to us, but clearly this cult has a way of drawing in women it knows it can manipulate. It seems like Patrick is also being very generic in his initial talks to her (the thing about ‘her father’ which illicits an immediate and uneasy reaction) seems similar to how horoscopes are vague generalizations most people can relate to.
Was the cult really following her? I don;t think the guy at the party was a cult member. It doesn’t make sense how they could infiltrate a catering service like that. The black SUV she scratches is eerily similar to the one we see on the cult farm and at the end (although it would have had repairs). The guy watching her swim looks unfamiliar but he is never really quite in focus. The rocks hitting the side of the house are a little too coincidental, especially night after night. I don’t think we are given any reason to believe these are outright hallucinations but perhaps she over embellishes them a little in her mind? In the end the movie does not provide a clear answer. But that’s the point.
What’s up with that ending? Yes. The ending sucks. It leaves us at the most tense part but it needed to happen. The ending works on a very literary level but not a satisfying emotional one. But really, who was watching this thinking it would be any other way? As they basically are driving off to the psychiatric facility it is the end of the story. Presumably Martha is finding her role (or rather having it found for her). Plus, why not end on the most tense moment of paranoia, since this is probably what she will be experiencing either for a long time or something she will never fully get over. Upon multiple viewings I am assuming this ending will never get less frustrating but ultimately it was the most logical choice.