Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
20th Century Fox

Release date: February 3rd, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 102 minutes

Writer and director: Sean Durkin

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

I first remember hearing rumblings about Sean Durkin’s debut feature after the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and then, last summer, we were treated to an exclusive look at the trailer at Empire’s Big Screen event where the Fox rep introducing the footage was extremely excited about the film.

Neither of these things got me especially thrilled – the trailer looked okay and Sundance buzz could see the film go either way – but as the reviews started to appear I began to take note of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Hearing interviews with Durkin, the star Elizabeth Olsen, and yet more positive reviews meant that I went into the film with expectations high.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). As the film opens she lives on a farm, what appears to be a commune of sorts, where the men spend the day fixing roofs and mending fences while the women prepare the evening meal (which the men will eat first followed, separately, by the women). In the early hours of the morning Martha leaves the farm and runs away through the woods pursued by the other members of the commune. After a distraught phone call to her sister, she is picked up by car and the film plays out during Martha’s stay with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Inter-cut with this are flashbacks of Martha arriving on the farm, of her being rechristened as ‘Marcy May’, and of her subsequent life there.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

We come to learn that the farm on which ‘Marcy May’ lived was in fact something more akin to a cult than a commune and that its figurehead is the enigmatic and creepy Patrick (John Hawkes) who gave Martha her new name. Through the flashbacks we come to see how the farm operates: offering a new home to disillusioned youths; giving them a new name and life where they had a role within the family; where they share clothes and sleep like sardines in small dormitories. We also see how Martha struggles to adjust back to the outside world afterwards behaving in a variety of inappropriate ways during her stay with Lucy and Ted.

The performances in this film are absolutely fantastic with Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes the standouts. Olsen is wonderful as Martha, showing us the young woman who arrives at the farm and how her identity is slowly corroded by her peers and her surroundings and then she is absolutely compelling in the scenes at her sister’s house where she veers wildly between a disinterested teenager and apparent catatonia. Hawkes meanwhile gives Patrick enough charisma to understand why people wish to live on the farm and why they follow his word, whilst also being sinister enough that we are unsure of his purposes and understand the threat he may pose. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are also very good; Paulson’s Lucy is conflicted having missed her sister so much and just wanting to help her despite her outbursts and odd behaviour and Dancy as her very British husband who is keen for Martha to grow up and to start accounting for herself.

Above and beyond the performances though, it is the technical side of the film-making which really soars. What Durkin, Jody Lee Lipes (cinematographer), Zachary Stuart-Pontier (editor) and the sound team manage to achieve is the remarkable feat of placing the audience within Martha’s psyche in such a way as to make you feel at home when she does, uncomfortable when she is, and crucially, you feel terrified when she does.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

From the disjointed and oddly composed camerawork when Martha is at her sister’s house through to the slow and natural pans across the farm we feel entirely in her shoes. As the tension of the film grows and Martha’s fears overwhelm her, they also threaten to overwhelm the viewer which is at times breathtaking. All of this is done subtly enough that you are entirely taken in and completely along for the ride with Martha. Even when you can intellectually see that what she is feeling or fearing is wrong, you are still wholly emotionally convinced that she is right.

The only point at which I felt disconnected from this and which jarred with the rest of the film was a scene in which Patrick, ‘Marcy May’ and a couple of others break into a man’s house. Whilst it was pointed out to me that this scene was necessary in acting as a catalyst for Martha to leave the farm, it still felt out of place and seemed to belong more in the film that this could have easily become. What I loved about Martha Marcy May Marlene is that it didn’t become that film.

Some people will not like the ending but ultimately, I think it underlines the central conceit of the film and reinforces both our hopes and fears for Martha as well as asking us how sure we are of what is happening. Although it is not perfect, this is a blistering debut from Sean Durkin, showing wonderful command of the medium and I would be very keen to see what he does next.

About Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.