Hauntingly beautiful but flawed, this newly-released American thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene is as psychologically twisted as the title is near-unpronounceable.

By Matthew McEvoy

Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

By Matthew McEvoy

Chillingly dissonant, delusional and hallucinatory, this near-perfect debut feature from young writer-director, Sean Durkin, plumbs the depths of schizoid paranoia and gnawing anxiety, stringing the narrative together using fragments of the protagonist’s past. However, the film falls just short of perfect, due to its slightly too unpolished narrative constructs and over-reliance on themes of reality and delusion, which seem to paper over holes in the plot.

Martha Marcy May Marlene features a mesmerising debutant performance from Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley). Olsen plays the central character, Martha, and an unnerving John Hawkes stars opposite as her nemesis, Patrick.

The plot focuses on the young Martha (Olsen) escaping from a cult in the Catskill Mountains, New York, and her struggle with her re-assimilation into normal life. She settles with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) who take her in, out of some vague obligation. Only midway during her stay at their idyllic beach house in Connecticut is the extent of Martha’s trauma revealed, and her sister’s inability to deal with her strange behaviour forms the backbone of the film.

A Dark Past
Young director Sean Durkin shows maturity in bringing the plot intricately together. The present is seamlessly interspersed with flashbacks of Martha’s time in the cult she was a part of before escaping, forming a trippy juxtaposition between indoctrination, manipulation and power, and the process of reconstructing a sense of normality.

While Patrick (Hawkes) is modelled loosely on a Manson-type leader, the cult itself has little definition. The most apparent doctrine seems to focus on the spiritual enlightenment of one’s self: “You’re a teacher, a leader, Marcy May”. We soon know this ideology to be false; it is merely sexual power-play under the guise of self-exploration – a method that the eerily alluring leader Patrick uses, particularly on the female members of the commune.

We are meant to treat to such entrapment as an absurdity and Durkin effectively uses older sister Lucy as a foil for what the audience considers ‘normal’. However, you just can’t help but feel that she and her husband Ted are non-genuine, as their reactions to Martha’s episodes of psychosis are rigid and emotionally stunted. They continually hold Martha at arm’s length and this distance may be down to the unknown tragedy of the sisters’ upbringing; Durkin alludes to this throughout. However, this strained relationship, which Durkin uses at the centre of the plot, lacks the key ingredient of compassion that is vital to balancing the film’s tragic element.

The film is beautifully shot, constructed and performed. It is not perfect, however. The blurring of the present with fragmented memory is effective in part, yet it has a tendency to paint a picture that isn’t exactly faithful to the plot. It has the potential to work, with certain elements almost there already, such as the mystery behind the cult. However, little substance – in terms of characterisation – means it ultimately falls victim to its own myopia.

That being said, plaudits must be given to John Hawkes, who was thoroughly chilling throughout, and moreso to Elizabeth Olson, who puts in a performance of such melancholic anxiety that it will leave you rocking back-and-forth, nervously looking over your shoulder.

Out now. 101 mins (Rated 15). 

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