Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

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In style and tone, Martha Marcy May Marlene kept reminding me of that oddly successful Greek film Dogtooth from a couple of years ago.  Both films were about a family in stasis staying in their respective communes.  Dogtooth pushed incest and the hazards of home education on a more direct level, even if it was caked in layers of weird behavior.  Martha Marcy, by contrast, has no humor and is even more static, exploring the notions of a philosophical family torn apart by its incestual leanings.

The core idea at Martha Marcy's (and Dogtooth's) center is the dark counterpart to the same one feeding some of the best sitcoms on TV today.  This is the idea that the family you are born into is not the one who will give you the most love and attention you deserve.  But you can form your own unit drawn together from all the loving misfits and outcasts of your circle to form a family.

I like that Martha Marcy is willing to explore how this does not work in some practice's, but what I don't like is just how static the whole experience is.  I don't discourage anyone from watching it, because it's still a well performed and coldly executed film, but what changes in Martha/Marcy's (Elizabeth Olsen) from the beginning of the film to the end?  Since my answer is "practically nothing" I have to look at the other message, which is "cults are bad".

That's quite a lot of effort for so small a product.

But damn if there aren't moments that make the results feel a lot greater than they actually are.  Let's start with those performances, especially John Hawkes as the terrifying leader of the cult Martha finds herself drawn to in a especially misguided phase of wanderlust.  His Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone a few years ago secured in the public eye what I've known about him for longer, he is Gary Oldman without the makeup.

Few actors are capable of disappearing into a role as readily and thoroughly as Hakwes does.  Patrick bears some resemblance to the focused avenger in Winter's Bone, but is a terrifying entity all his own.  He knows just the right way to compliment all of his charges while rendering them helpless to their past and his hand in their future.  Hawkes brings his own formidable charisma to bear, and is less kindly and more dangerous than his followers are willing to believe.

His counterpart and eventual slave who arrives Martha and is renamed Marcy would have fit right in with the strong wave of feminist films helmed by the likes of Chantal Akerman.  The mounting exhaustion and dread behind Martha/Marcy's actions leading to her break from the cult is pulled off with sullen determination from Olsen.  Even away, when she should have her triumphant moment, the movie begins to ask the question "What now?" of Martha/Marcy and she plays that confusion with a sad lurch toward the future.  But this is also where the film shows that it doesn't have much of a stand on anything, much less an idea of who she really is.

Writer/director Sean Durkin's visuals center around a number of static shots which leave Martha/Marcy detached from the rest of the people around her.  Not a bad start, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time starting from when she leaves the cult to when she was first drawn in to what appeared to be a commune.  The scenes in the past are the best, showing how a seemingly noble figure can guide people into terrible behaviour and nightly orgies with a smile and the right words at the right times.

Those scenes in the present I am less sure about.  She goes to stay with her sister and her husband (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy).  Despite having more screentime than Hawkes, Martha/Marcy's relationship with her sister is never suggests a real sibling bond existed or is tested in any way by her erratic behavior.  The husband responds more rationally to Martha/Marcy crawling into their bed when they're having sex, and represents a push for change the rest of the film resists beyond credulity.

We know nothing of Martha/Marcy beyond the commune and the home.  In both, she is being molded by a stronger personality, so what are we to make of her?  There's no reason to care about her plight because the films position is that some people exist to be molded into what other people wish them to be.  There is nothing about Martha/Marcy's situation which points to a grander idea, just her weakness and a general unwillingness to ask the hard questions about what she really liked about being in the cult.

Even at the end, in a shot which initially indicates she has finally made a choice, reveals just how static she always was.  The immense talent which finally gets us to this point may do in some circles, but I don't like films which ask us to go for a ride and never answers "Why?" when we're back to where it started.

I know Martha is more interesting than the Marcy we end on, I just wish the movie was about her more than her future.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Written and directed by Sean Durkin.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It sounds like a divisive film that will probably influence viewers in different ways. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m definitely intrigued given the buzz.

    • I can see this joining the late High School to early college pantheon of gateway films for budding cinema lovers, but it felt like a weak imitation of Atom Egoyan films at times. Still, there is no shame in doing so (intentional or no), and I certainly don’t discourage anyone from watching it.

      I would very much appreciate your thoughts whenever you get around to watching it.

  2. I see what you mean about the lack of forward motion in the film, but I didn’t even think about that. I was much more compelled by the ideas of paranoia and delusion represented in the film. To me it was much more about these psychological aspects and the many ways you can interpret some of the events in this film. It seemed much less about Martha overcoming this experience in any big way, but just generally being able to exist in a living situation as alien to her as living with the cult. It sat with me for awhile and I’m pretty excited to rewatch it.

    • Thanks for the comment Jess. Part of the issue I have with looking at it through the lens of paranoia and delusion is it didn’t bring anything new to the table in that regard. Stylistically it was cut, cross-cut to the past, back to the present, keep the camera still and rinse / repeat. Character-wise we don’t get enough of her to grasp her real state of paranoia until the very end.

      What you mentioned about her existing in an “alien” environment in her sister’s home is a good observation and one of the things about the film I really did like. I just wish the film responded to her intriguing behavior as rationally as it was trying to present how she ended up there to begin with.

      This is definitely a film I’ll revisit, and I encourage any discussion because it is definitely worth watching, just not to my liking.

      • Yeah, I can see being let down by the experience. On my first watch I left the theater just a bit miffed because I expected some sort of big, climactic moment that the movie seemed to be building up to. On the second viewing I was just impressed by the subtlety of it all. Definitely not a film for everyone.

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