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Martha Marcy May Marlene
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Anthony Lane Is A Big Stupid Jackass"
5 stars

Every year, I get asked if I will be going to the annual Sundance Film Festival and every year, I say no and offer my three standard reasons for not attending--going from Chicago to Utah in mid-January is a lateral move at best, the state only has 3.2 beer and I have already had the pleasure of meeting Parker Posey. Besides, between theatrical runs and engagements at other festivals down the line, I usually manage to catch up with virtually all of the notable titles and I am able to analyze them in a proper altitude with a clear head and no need to instantly anoint some unheralded title as the next big thing in the hopes that I might be able to lay claim to having helped discover the new "sex, lies and videotape." Over time, I have begun to notice that in many cases, when I finally do get to see the films that received the most buzz at the time, they have a tendency to fall far short of the hype when seen outside of the Sundance circuit (tune in next week for a (im)perfect example of just such a film) and as a result, I now tend to go into such films with more than a little wariness as to their potential quality. Every once in a while, however, a title comes down from the mountains that more than lives up to the hype and then some and the new drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is just such a film, a mysterious and haunting psychological drama that slowly but surely grabs viewers thanks to an intriguing and subtly complex screenplay. strong and confident direction and, courtesy of newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, one of the year's very best performances.

As the film opens, Martha (Olsen) is living in rural New York on what appears to be a good old fashioned commune. At first glance, it seems pleasant enough in a retro-hippie manner but after a couple of establishing scenes, Martha takes off into the woods in a sequence filled with enough tension to suggest that something very wrong is afoot. Eventually she makes contact with Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her older sister, and she brings Martha back to stay with her and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their lavishly appointed lake house. Although Martha has been gone for a couple of years, the reunion is not exactly a joyous occasion. Lucy is well-meaning but seems curiously uninterested as to where her sister has been and there is the sense that theirs was never an especially close relationship in the first place. Ted goes the the motions of being friendly enough at first but quickly grows impatient with the new interloper, especially when she takes a look at the massive house that he designed and casually remarks that it seems to be much too much for only two people. As for Martha herself, she just seems to be a bit off in certain ways--she thinks nothing of crawling into bed with Lucy and Ted while they are making love--and is reticent to discuss what happened to her during her absence.

Interspersed amongst the present-day sequences are scenes filling in so of the blanks from those previous two years. It turns out that the commune is in fact a cult led by the mysterious and charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) that he claims to have developed as a path to spiritual enlightenment but which actually appears to be nothing more than a way for him to have all of his needs taken care of by his followers. In the group, everything is shared equally, though he and the other men seem to be treated a little more equally and the women are basically on call to do his laundry, cook his meals and have sex with him whenever he demands it. We watch as he slowly seduces Martha, whom he renames Marcy May as a way of stripping her identity in a manner designed to make her feel special, into the rhythms of the group and once she is firmly hooked, he introduces her to the darker elements as well. When he sleeps with her for the first time, he prefaces the act by having other members assure her that it is indeed a special and deeply profound privilege as a way of getting her around the fact that he is basically raping her both physically and psychologically. There are other menacing aspects best left unmentioned but for Marcy, merely escaping from the group doesn't mean that she has escaped from that have done to her and what she has done for them. As a result, not only is Martha unable to fit back into the kind of normal life exemplified by Lucy and Ted, she is convinced that she is being targeted by the cult and in her fragile state of mind, she is increasingly unable to distinguish between what is a genuine threat and what is simply an advanced case of paranoia.

There have been other films dealing with people who have become involved with cults but "Martha Marcy Mar Marlene" tackles the subject in a fiercely original manner that conveys both the dehumanizing horror of being trapped in such a situation as well as the queasy allure that such a situation might have for a certain type of person at first. The film marks the debut of writer-director Sean Durkin and by weaving in and out between Martha's past and present situations, he effectively conveys the kind of emotional brutality that she suffered at the hands of Patrick and his followers while, via the obviously strained relationship with her sister, also demonstrating the kind of emotionally withholding atmosphere that would make joining a cult seem like a viable option at first. He also takes pains to avoid painting Martha as a purely innocent victim as well--there are numerous points during the present-day scenes in which she comes across as downright unlikable and in the creepiest sequence in the entire film, we see her in one of the flashbacks as she goes about preparing a new recruit for her own initiation rape by calmly parroting the same empty platitudes that she was once on the receiving end herself. There is also a fascinatingly ambiguous tone to the story that Durkin handles wonderfully well both as a writer and director in the way that we are never quite sure if Martha's increasing sense of paranoia about her possible danger following her escape is real or a figment of her imagination. As the story proceeds, the line between the real and the imagined becomes increasingly blurred and leads up to an amazing final scene that will serve as the source for many a post-film discussion.

Although "Martha Marcy May Marlene" may revel in its sense of ambiguity, there is nothing ambiguous about its greatest asset, the incredible performance in the title roles by Elizabeth Olsen. Yes, the is the heretofore unknown younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and that bit of trivia has already earned the film a bit of notoriety and will also doubtlessly inspire a certain set of expectations for audiences that most new actresses would not find themselves needing to overcome. However, within only a few minutes, any preconceptions that viewers may have based on her name will be replaced by the sensation of watching a prodigiously gifted actress emerging before their eyes. This is an enormously complicated part and one so filled with moments of raw and complicated emotions that I can imagine many talented actresses shying away from it but Olsen tackles the challenge head-on and the result is a stunning showcase in which she displays nary a false note at any point in the proceedings. She is ably supported by her fellow actors--the increasingly ubiquitous John Hawkes is creepily convincing as the cult leader and even such formerly unimpressive presences as Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are strikingly effective in their scenes as they ineptly try to relate to Martha while still maintaining their own self-involved existences--but this is a star-making part if ever there was one. In terms of impact, it is just as powerful as Jennifer Lawrence's breakout performance in last year's "Winters Bone" (which also featured John Hawkes in a key supporting role) and here, Olsen has the distinct advantage of having her work be featured in a film that doesn't otherwise stink.

Thanks to some misleading television ads and a late October release date, some moviegoers may assume that "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is just another standard-issue horror film and either rush out to see it or skip it entirely based on their personal preferences regarding the genre. The trouble is that the film is anything but the cheap shocker suggested by those ads and there is a real danger that such a campaign might lure in viewers looking for a straight-up fright flick while keeping away those who might be interested in a well-crafted drama. From an economic standpoint, I can understand the appeal of such a promotion but I do hope that once word about the film begins to spread, the exploitative campaign will be replaced with one that more accurately reflects its actual contents. Hopefully this will come sooner than later and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" will catch on because this is one of the best films of the years and one that will haunt you for a long time after watching it

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21762&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/28/11 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/26/12 David Pollastrini This Olson is a better actress than her twin sisters 4 stars
4/04/12 Jason Coffman Reminded me of creepy 70s female-centric horrors. 4 stars
3/27/12 The Taitor Good acting, boring storyline 2 stars
3/19/12 Herbert M Berman Brilliant exploration of troubled minds—Martha and the cult. 5 stars
11/30/11 Langano Good acting but left me unsatisfied. 3 stars
10/28/11 Louis Blyskal Just OK 3 stars
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  21-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 21-Feb-2012


  DVD: 21-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Sean Durkin

Written by
  Sean Durkin

  Elizabeth Olsen
  Brady Corbet
  Hugh Dancy
  John Hawkes
  Sarah Paulson

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