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“Martha Marcy May Marlene” A Review

Updated on September 11, 2012

© 2012 B. L. Bierley

In order to write a valid review of this movie, let me say for the record that I do not have any authority for being a critic of movies. I am, however, very capable of writing my opinion out for the public to read. And if you have noticed before, I watch a mish-mash of movies ranging from the obscure to the blockbuster to the Oscar buzz titles. I rarely review new movies unless I feel particularly compelled to do so, therefore this review will be about a movie that has been out for some time now. The Oscar nomination intrigued me enough to watch the film.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is an interesting voyage into the aftermath of someone who has fallen victim to a cult mentality. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, this film delves deeply into the heart of what happens after the person escapes. But are they ever truly free of the nightmares?

There's Something About Martha or Marcy May...

It is apparent fairly quickly in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" that there is something wrong with Marcy May. Or Martha. Or perhaps she's Marlene? Her name is a lesson in contradictions until we are infused with the storyline that it's a cult behavior of her "family" to rename newcomers to strip them of their former identities. They go further to use an alias when interacting with the outsiders to keep the societal segregation intact. But to me there was still a little something missing from the story.

I understood that Martha was running away from the cult, though it doesn't become apparent as to what event actually spurs her to make this decision until much later in the movie. And there is enough speculation and innuendo to let you believe she is affected by her experiences within the compound, though it is never discussed with her actual blood relations when she does escape.

Beware the Kool-Aid

Martha has been living in a cult for about two years according to the mixed conversational dialog. And she has developed some interesting new behavior during that time. Behavior which her sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, cannot understand. Lucy's stuffy husband Ted, played very well by Hugh Dancy in premium jerk fashion, is not outwardly patient with the younger sibling's bizarre rituals. The naked swimming in public aside, Ted is livid with his sister-in-law when she unapologetically joins him and his wife in their bed while they are mid-coitus.

And yet they still don't seem to see the damage the girl has suffered until she literally comes apart before their eyes. She's suspicious and paranoid in one point, and yet she is still somehow drawn to the group of miscreants led by a wicked voyeuristic rapist by the name of Patrick. This role is played to eerie perfection by John Hawkes.

The brainwashing, manipulative torture witnessed as Patrick and his followers "cleanse and teach" Marcy May is enough to scare the pants off of any parent of a teenage girl. You might even be compelled to do a little more research on the subject of cult manipulation. Because to watch the process by which Martha's values and confidence are challenged and torn to pieces, then reconstructed with newly twisted foundations, is enough to make you have nightmares and wet the bed too.

Oscar? This is Film ... Are You Even Watching?

The portrayal of Martha's behavior is startling and genuine. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen is a big girl playing an even bigger role here, and she does it with utterly convincing sincerity. It was never about her being an actress playing a cult-damaged individual. To me, she was a cult-damaged individual. The only thing that was lacking with the writing in my opinion was a lack of discussion as to what possessed Martha to believe her behavior and her sanity were both okay.

At times in the movie, Martha seems to get the picture of how the world works, while in other moments she clearly is out of touch with actual societal norms. At one point she is even arguing her case with the cult philosophy intact. For some this might leave the movie disconnected and frustrating. It is fairly certain, as seen in various flashbacks, that there are reasons aplenty for Martha to desire a speedy exit stage left from the cult. And I won't spoil the entire movie with specifics here. There was just a lack of connectivity between the past and the present. But what it lacked in connectivity it made up for in imagery and convincing portrayals of other cult members.

The actors and actresses in this film played their roles like they were living actual lives not occupying roles. Elizabeth Olsen and others, including the directorial staff, were nominated and won numerous awards for their efforts. But for whatever reason, the powers that be in the world of Oscars didn't seem to credit the accomplishments here. How this portrayal was passed over for an Oscar is beyond me.

I blame the media's influence on what people call entertainment for many of the things that win instead of heart-felt, gut-wrenching portrayals of real characters. This movie was not perfect. But the actors and actresses playing the roles should have all been nominated for something!

Hawkes's Patrick was a convincing villain, as was the loyal follower Katie played to a psychopathic turn by Maria Dizzia. Olsen rocked the role of Martha with shameless aplomb, and I applaud her willingness to be the role not just go through the motions. I was more compelled to watch this movie (one that didn't win an award) rather than the ones that won the actual statues simply from what I saw in the clips they played during the Oscar Ceremony. And really, I can't say that I was disappointed.

Recommendation-- Do You Want to See this Film?

When I review a movie, I always ask myself one question. To whom would I recommend this film/movie? In the case of this movie, I would have to say it's a question of your tolerance with bizarre behavior, or what sort of lesson you want to get from your movie about avoiding cults. In this movie, there is nudity, there is deviant sexual behavior, and there are varied levels of violence that all point to a central theme: cults can brainwash you and mess you up for life, if you manage to survive the escape. But "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is not really a moral tale. It never actually shows the success or failure of the characters in dealing with their experiences either as former cult members or their unfortunate family members having to deal with their tragic lives in the aftermath.

I watched this movie with my daughter, DaVelma, who is fifteen. And I was quick to answer her questions of why people in the movie were behaving in such bizarre and uncharacteristic ways by her standard definitions of how folks should behave. I think I can safely say my daughter would smack the little Dixie cup of Kool-Aid from the prophet's hands and run like mad to the nearest police station before they'd suck her into their space ship or make her do manual labor for a group of men. At least, that's what I tell myself.

So watch this movie if you'd like to see a drama with a speculative ending that leaves no clear picture of how it actually plays out. I think that was the aim of the writer/director Sean Durkin: to let people extrapolate what might have happened based on deductions from their experience. It was compelling and definitely not a waste of an hour and forty two minutes of your time if drama is what you're after. This movie delivers in that arena.


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