Don’t let the clunky title fool you – Martha Marcy May Marlene unfolds like a beautiful, poetic song. Just like music, you enjoy the words and become entranced with the beat that sticks in your head for days, but in the end, you are not quite sure what the lyrics exactly mean. I could tell you every line of the film right now, but I still would not be spoiling much, for what happens is all determined by the viewer’s perspective.
Ambiguity is a hard card to play with film. Most of the time it ends up backfiring, bankrupting the audience’s two-hour investment for an unsatisfying conclusion. For first-time feature-length filmmaker and screenwriter Sean Durkin, this is one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory. Effortlessly weaving the present with memories of the past with dreams (it is left up to you to determine which one of the three categories each scene falls under), Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite an experience, but most importantly, it is a taught suspenseful drama first.
A rather skeletal structure of a plot, Elizabeth Olsen (yes, of that Olsen family) plays Martha, an escapee of a violent cult. Practically brainwashed, she manages to flee to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (a fine but non-essential Hugh Dancy). The film shows Martha’s uneasy assimilation back into the real world while secretly guarding what really happened to her besides the lie she tells everyone, and maybe even herself, that she was “with a boyfriend in upstate New York.”
With smooth editing, Martha’s newfound home life is intercut with her time on the cult’s farm, led by the creepy yet charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes who was nominated for an Oscar in last year’s indie Winter’s Bone in a similarly intimidating role). The feeling of menace in these flashbacks/dreams escalates for the audience as a crippling sense of paranoia rises in Martha.
Is the cult (a word that is never uttered in the film) following Martha? Or is she in danger of losing her mind?
In a star-making role, Elizabeth Olsen (who bares a strong resemblance to her more famous siblings) translates her heavy, silent sorrow into something transfixing for the audience. Unable to speak of the cult beyond her memories, Olsen is largely silent, letting her emotions speak through her big blue eyes. At the same time, she is always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, especially in screaming matches with Lucy. Olsen and Paulson share sisterly glances that show more is going on than the audience is aware of. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film where the important information is unspoken for the sake of realism.
Anti-social and cryptic, Olsen manages to make her uncomfortable character bearable. She finds a multiplicity to her Martha’s emotions; and sometimes personalities, going by all four of the titular names at one point or another.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a relatively static film with fixed wide shots and a beautiful, yet tame color palette. This expectedness makes Durkin’s occasional outbursts of arguments, violence, sex, and at times a combination of all three (there is a tense yet tamely shot rape scene), even more shocking than they actually appear.
Singers have two choices on how to end a song: to cut it off or to have it fade out. Durkin chooses the former. Martha Marcy May Marlene has an ending that is as ambiguous and as satisfying as one can expect. While I usually dislike open-endings, for a character as cagey as Martha (or is it really Marcy May or Marlene that we’ve been journeying with this whole time?), an expectation for resolution would be just as crazy.
Review By Ryan Mazie