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Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Directed by: Sean Durkin

Premise: A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) runs away from an abusive commune and reunites with her estranged sister but has trouble adjusting to life outside the group.

What Works: Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intelligent film that examines what it means to be normal. The title character is a young woman who is searching for answers to life’s big questions. Her quest for a life of conscience, meaning, and integrity leads her to an anti-materialist hippie commune where the character finds what she thinks she’s been looking for. After suffering abuse and witnessing other outrages, Martha runs away to her sister, who lives a more conventional and affluent lifestyle, but finds herself psychologically and spiritually disoriented. That disorientation is what Martha Marcy May Marlene is all about and the filmmakers deal with it very effectively. The picture has a split narrative, starting with Martha running away from the commune and then alternating between time spent with her sister and flashbacks to her time at the commune. The organization and editing of the picture is done very well and the picture effectively balances between its two temporal periods, using one to inform the other. The storyline of life at the commune is done especially well, gradually evolving from harmless hippie life and into a dangerous cult. This crosscutting also allows the picture to address the principle contrast between those two settings: the organic pseudo-spiritual values of the commune and the materialist and capitalist values of the sister’s home. That conflict is central to understanding what drew Martha to the commune in the first place and it provides a roadblock for her recovery from cult life. This alternating structure also allows the viewer to see things from Martha’s perspective and empathize with her when she does things in her sister’s house that seem absurd. This places the viewer on her side, even if we wish that Martha would just come clean about her past. The refusal by the main character to make a full disclosure makes sense within the context of the film because she is unable to make sense of just what has happened and her sister is unable to understand her experiences. This confusion is at the core of Elizabeth Olsen’s terrific performance. The film gives Olsen an interesting challenge because there isn’t a coherent character for her to play. When good writers create characters they often have fully formed identities and ideologies. Martha’s life story is fragmented and her beliefs are in disarray; she is not sure who she is or what she believes and throughout the film the character attempts to reassemble her sense of self. This is where Olson does great work and there are a lot of subtle choices she makes in line delivery and posture that indicate the character’s ongoing struggle and fear. 

What Doesn’t: Martha Marcy May Marlene is primarily a character study. As such, the film lacks an emphasis on plotting. There is a narrative to the film but the plot beats are more nuanced. This comes to bear on the film in the ending, which is inconclusive to say the least. Although the film’s emphasis is on exploring the main character’s psychological and spiritual fragmentation the lack of a resolution is unsatisfying, especially since the film hints that critical events will occur just beyond the point at which the picture ends.

DVD extras: The short film “Mary Last Seen.”
Bottom Line: Martha Marcy May Marlene is a thoughtful film. It could use a more decisive or substantive ending but this is a picture intended to spark discussion about its themes and characters after the film has ended and intelligent viewers will find a lot in the picture to deliberate over.

Episode: #381 (March 25, 2012)