Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

I finally got to see Martha Marcy May Marlene this past weekend – and it was just as great and creepy as I hoped it would be. So let's jump right in!

The story centers on Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, a young (twenty years old, maybe?) woman who has recently escaped from a cult and come to live with her estranged sister and brother-in-law at their summer home. It becomes immediately apparent, however, that her two years at within the abusive cult have deeply affected Martha and her state of mind. That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, though, because I think everyone should go into it knowing as little as I did. I’m glad I didn’t read any reviews before going into it, because many of them give away far too much of the plot, and I think the movie had a much bigger impact on me because I didn’t see so much of it coming.

As far as performances go, the acting was truly impeccable. All the buzz about Elizabeth Olsen being a breakout star is true – she was fantastic. Her performance was stunningly restrained and subtle, her stony countenance belying so much emotion and so many memories, until the rare moments when she nearly explodes off the screen. (One scene in particular is taken in a single, sustained shot and Olsen shows such a believable emotional crescendo, from quiet impassivity to an all out fit of screaming paranoia.) It’s hilarious to me that she’s related to the Olsen twins (and nearly looks like she could be their triplet). I mean, all my friends know that I absolutely love Mary-Kate Olsen – I think she’s awesome and weird and I love some of the things she’s been in (The Wackness, Weeds) – but she’s no great actress. Elizabeth Olsen is.

Other notable performances? Well, John Hawkes is, of course, wonderful as the cult’s leader, Patrick. He’s quietly charismatic, controlling, and sinister, much like his character in Winter’s Bone (though, if I had to choose, I’d say his performance in the latter was the more compelling). Martha’s sister, Lucy (Sara Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy), are both good as the sort of well meaning, sort of uptight yuppie relatives. I could understand their frustration with Martha while at the same time be angry with them for being so blissfully ignorant to her obvious plight. I liked that most of the cult members weren’t very well-known actors, because I could get that much more absorbed into their isolated way of life and thinking.

And then there was the way the film was edited. The two storylines – Martha’s present life at the summer home and the previous two years she spent with the cult – are seamlessly merged into one. We see Martha swimming in the lake by her sister’s summer home, and suddenly realize she’s back at the lake up in the Catskills, swimming with Patrick. Then the memory moves just as effortlessly back into the present. It’s a technique that could become annoying and gimmicky if used incorrectly, but the director, Sean Durkin, never falters. It’s an incredibly effective method of telling Martha’s story, and it serves to both lead the viewer straight into Martha’s damaged mind and slowly but surely build on the viewer’s sense of dread and paranoia.

The only other thing you should know before going into this movie is that it is not a thriller in the traditional sense. There are no pop-out scares and there’s no fast-paced suspense. There’s just a steadily building anxiety and eeriness, along with increasing paranoia, that doesn’t end once you leave the theater. And in my opinion, that’s a welcome change.

Final Rating (out of 5):

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