MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Dir. Sean Durkin, 2011)
If you can get past the title, this is a stunner.
Elizabeth Olsen is Martha, but while she was living with a cult for 2 years in the Catskills she was called “Marcy May.” “Marlene” is the name all the women group members are given to identify themselves when answering the phone (the men go by “Michael”).
The film begins with Olsen fleeing the cult’s farm, and calling her older sister (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. Olsen stays with her sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut vacation house as she recovers.
But getting back to normal is going to be difficult as she is haunted by memories of what she’s been through.
“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” She asks Paulson, summing up what most of the movie is like.
As many scenes form, we are unsure if what is happening is past or present. We see flashbacks involving John Hawkes as the cult’s leader, who is as scary as he is charismatic. Hawkes trains the cult members how to handle guns, perform home invasions, and participate in forced sex rituals. Even when softly singing an old ‘60s folk song (aptly titled “Marcy’s Song), Hawkes is creepy as can be.
Olsen is understandably frightened about being abducted again, constantly feeling she’s being watched. Her behavior is unnerving to Paulson and Dancy who are trying to have a baby. At one point Olsen climbs into bed with them as they are having sex. Yep, the girl ain’t right.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a disturbing, unsettling experience. A lot of it drifts like a dream, but the kind of dream that's on the edge of a nightmare.
First time writer-director Durkin has crafted a stirring film, a different kind of psychological thriller than the formulaic fodder that usually goes by that label.
The material here may be a bit vague – we never get much of a backstory to the cult, and don’t get how Olsen got caught up with them in the first place – but this is a movie about moods and a fractured mindset, it’s not about details or exposition.
The ambiguous ending is sure to put many people off, but I found it to be fitting in keeping with the film’s eerie atmosphere.
Olsen’s performance never falters. It’s a challenging character that she infuses with an effective frazzled fragility, which is really impressive for her first leading role in a feature film.
Recently it was reported that the President ordered up this film for a screening at the White House.
Interesting choice. Maybe that will add some Obama buzz to the hugely favorable reviews this has already gathered. This is not a film to be ignored, and since the Commander in Chief himself sought it out, with hope many moviegoers will follow suit.