Director and writer Sean Durkin makes his feature debut with ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’ The film centers on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to understand everyday life and reconnect with her family after fleeing an abusive cult. Durkin’s feature is intelligent and captivating though it’s rough around the edges.
Durkin writes ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ in a way that seemingly delves into a semi-religious cult community and the psyche of an escapee. Cults are opportunistic by assuming mind control over individuals in weakened mental/physical states (in Martha’s case, she becomes entwined with the cult after her mother’s death) by promising unconditional love and acceptance. Once a member, their problems are reduced to simple explanations, they receive new identities based on the group (hence “Marcy May”) and they’re subject to entrapment by being isolated from the “outside” world. The cult’s charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes, American Gangster, Winter’s Bone) is responsible for providing “unconditional love” (rape) and guidance to the young men and women searching for acceptance and freedom. After two years and a particular event, Martha feels betrayed and flees with a damaged psyche and paranoia over the cult’s pursuit of her. Durkin’s screenplay understands and executes these characteristics, resulting in a film with a real candidness that’s brought to life by actors with the same competence.
Olsen’s performance as Martha is nearly flawless as she transitions from uncertain runaway to devoted cult member to paranoid escapee. Martha flees to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) vacation home for safety, but even they don’t know how to properly help her broken mind. Paulson plays the part of the concerned and guilt-ridden sister searching for answers and Dancy plays the devoted husband concerned for his wife. Durkin’s screenplay allows each of these three actors to feed off of one another in a way that presents believable conflicts and instability, while keeping it identifiable to real people with dialogue that doesn’t seem cliché or forced. The actors thrive most in vulnerable situations that feel uncomfortable to the viewer. For example, Lucy and Ted are forced to confront Martha’s psychological state at a party when Martha’s paranoia rages out of control. This moment allows Olsen to shine, but also allows Paulson and Dancy’s characters to break and release the guard they’d kept up since Martha’s arrival. Conversely, John Hawkes (as Patrick) thrives in moments of quiet and comfort. His character is disingenuous and frightening. Patrick is responsible for earning the commitment of new recruits, but Hawkes is responsible for vilifying Patrick in a way that creates unease with the audience, which works considering there are real people like Patrick. Of course, framing Hawkes in low light settings assists in the tension’s creation, as does his intonation and variance over the emotional spectrum (one moment he’s providing “unconditional love” and singing customized songs, the next he’s being demeaning, threatening or violent).
Despite the writing and acting successes, the cinematography and pacing of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ are the two primary shortcomings. The film itself, doesn’t look polished or well-lit, which works in some instances (like the frequent foreground-background focus) but should have been used sparingly for affect rather than consistently for which it seems to try replicating a sense of authenticity already in play by the acting and story. ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ sometimes feels rushed and other times lingers, which is a consistency issue on behalf of the editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier. Despite its shortcomings (which also includes an iffy ending) there’s no denying the memorability of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ especially considering the lines, “Death is the most beautiful part of life…death is pure love,” and “You’re never really dead or alive, you just exist.”
Seems like existence is the popular theme in filmmaking currently and ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’s is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language and runs 101 minutes.