Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) - Sean Durkin


It's best to go into this film knowing as little as possible about the premise as possible, so in brief, a young woman Martha after an absence of two years suddenly shows up and contacts her sister. As she stays with her sister and husband it becomes increasingly clear that something deeply troubling happened to Martha in her period away. Now it's impossible to discuss some of the themes and feelings about the film without spoilers so look away if you haven't seen the film.

It's a film I was left wondering what was the meaning of it, and in some ways the picture above does sum it up; Martha beautiful, inscrutable and somehow empty and unreachable with her sister Lucy, a well-to-do-suburbanite puzzled by who this 'new' person is and with no idea how to connect. And it does mirror my film experience in a way. As Martha awkwardly tries to assimilate herself into this new family dynamic and fails, I was there with Lucy feeling her frustration but also with Martha since it took almost 90 minutes before someone instead of almost stating, 'What's wrong with you!?!' started asking, 'What happened?' as I would expect a normal human being to react, It's fully explainable by Lucy's character and how she would be totally at a loss with this new creature, so out of sync with' her world' but it was unbearable at times.

There's a deep air of malevolence in the scenes shot on the commune Martha stays in and the indie sensibilities of the various shots help deepen that. The house and living conditions all on the surface look rustic and homely but beneath there's a layer of grime and unpleasantness scratching away at you. From Hawke's seamlessly and insidiously renaming each of the people that come to live on the commune, to the more violent ways that their personalities are stripped away and assimilated as we learn more about what happened to Martha. It's shot in a way that blurs the elements of reality and flashback and even the imaginary, echoing Martha's experience during the film which she even comments on to Lucy.

John Hawkes, despite his surprisingly minimal screen time, is a magnetic presence and fully convinces as the 'leader'. However it's Olson that is far and away the best thing in the film. Even when she's conveying blank detachment you always feel there's something there, behind the eyes going on; as damaged Martha she gets to run the full gamete of emotions, confused, scared, lonely, paranoid, angry often uncomfortably so. Paulson as Lucy gets the tone of the character just right, though Hugh Dancy as her husband Ted does come off as more than a little annoying as the 'captain of industry' career man.

It did leave an impression on me with a terrific performance by Olson and Hawkes, and the end while ambiguous and leaving us uncertain as to the fate of the various characters was perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. Possibly one that is worth me re-watching to allow it to sink into my subconscious again.