Martha Marcy May Marlene (Film Review)

Summary: Innocent girl joins then escapes from Manson-esque cult only to find she can’t adjust to normal life.


Is It Martha, Marcy, May or Marlene

I have to say I was one of those who didn’t see this on the big screen when it was released in 2011. The BBC’s film review program quickly convinced me of my shortcoming and I scampered to see it before it was removed from screens. But alas! my scampering was in vain and all but one of the cinemas in the West End had removed this underrated film.


So when the DVD hit the shelves I immediately sought to rectify my mistake and made it a priority to get this film into my XBOX to see what all the fuss was about. Presto, and over 100 minutes later and I let out a heavy sigh after having experienced a movie that truly deserves its indie tag.


Those of you who have read my reviews will know that I’m a fan of the indie genre. Sadly this tag is now used indiscriminately for every type budget movie out there which the big distributors want to have a cult following. But don’t let that put you off. There are still great releases, albeit few and far between. And this is one of them.


The Story

Martha Marcy May Marlene starts off with the lead character Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, sister of the Olsen twins – that peculiarly American moneymaking duo who sold millions of cutesy curios in the nineties based on their likeable image – phoning a sister who she has evidently lost contact with for 2 years. Rather haltingly she tries to get her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up, but doesn’t quite know how to say it, so that we immediately sense the strain in the relationship between the 2 siblings.


Soon enough we discover the reason behind Martha’s discomfiture – she’s just escaped from a cult, and we’re left to figure out just what this has done to her. Like with all cults she has a strong bond to its members and it is hard to leave and extricate herself from their teachings. The makers of the movie do us a huge favour by not compromising on story in order to explain every single detail, and for most of the movie the viewer is left to piece together a puzzle that intertwines past with present.


What’s the use of this style, you’ll ask? Why confuse us by leaving location and time ambiguous? Why leave us to ponder out where we are with regards to Martha’s timeline? Well, the simple answer to this is that Martha herself is quite disorientated, not knowing exactly where she is sometimes. The editing in these places is intelligently done as Past and Present Martha interlace – the same body and yet clearly different people – the one wounded but innocent and the latter wounded, damaged, and no longer innocent.


We see her confuse who she was in the past (values, education etc) with who she’s been taught to be by the cult: in one scene she dives naked into the lake in front of Lucy’s house to everyone’s great astonishment, and in another she climbs into Lucy’s bed while she’s having intercourse with Ted, her British husband (played by Hugh Dancy).


Her strange behaviour brings a strain on Lucy’s marriage and through it all Martha refuses to tell anyone just what she has been through.


The makers of the movie have made the ending ambiguous. But this – as in the decision with the timeline – doesn’t detract from the story. All in all this is very accomplished story telling and it is a wonder Elizabeth Olsen didn’t get a nod from the Oscars. Maybe it’s too soon for this actress, but with acting like this it may only be a matter of time before she gives the traditional hysteria-laced speech we’ve come to expect from recipients of the award.


See Also

Winter’s bone



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