Martha Marcy May Marlene, the debut feature from writer-director Sean Durkin, was one of 2011’s most overrated releases. Receiving nearly universal praise, the film is largely an exercise in style over substance. Though it didn’t make a large box-office impact during its limited theatrical run, the awkwardly titled character study now has a shot at reaching a wider audience on DVD.
Much of the buzz generated by the movie was due to the breakout lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. As the title character, a young woman who has gone by several names and has recently escaped from a dangerous cult, Olsen carries the movie to a significant degree. She delivers a highly understated performance, keeping Martha truly enigmatic. While Durkin’s interesting premise is never really fully developed, Olsen keeps the film compelling.
Following an annoying flashback structure, Martha Marcy May Marlene sketches in some details about Martha’s experiences in the cult. Patrick (John Hawkes), their Mason-like leader, is as magnetic as he is controlling, orchestrating the sex lives of the young girls who live on his compound. We hear a song he has written for Martha, glimpsing his seductive power. We see that Martha gradually adopts all the group-think that she was initially resistant to. What we don’t learn enough of is why Martha joined this cult in the first place, or why she stayed in, only trying to escape after things take a violent turn.
The “present day” segments find Martha staying with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is in deep denial about the depths of her sister’s psychological problems. Martha isn’t very forthcoming about her past with Lucy or Ted (Hugh Dancy), Lucy’s husband. As Martha’s behavior becomes more unpredictable and inappropriate, both Lucy and Ted become increasingly agitated. But they refuse to pry into Martha’s troubled state of mind, completely unaware about her cult membership. Not much happens in these segments, except for the unraveling of Martha’s psyche as she constantly suspects that the cult members are tracking her. Never does the movie really make Lucy and Ted particularly realistic or rational in the way they handle Martha.
And then there’s the matter of the ending. I won’t “spoil” it, though I will say there’s precious little to spoil. Abrupt endings can be very effective. Sometimes a movie ends suddenly because there is simply nothing else to say. Other times abrupt endings allow the viewer to formulate their own interpretation. In this case, the ending is simply a result of writer-director Durkin having painted himself into a corner. The backstory is interesting enough, but the present-day plot is inert. I’m sure Durkin could have come up with a more emotionally and/or intellectually satisfying conclusion, but he didn’t. The non-ending only underlines the essential emptiness of the entire movie.
As an actor’s showcase, Martha Marcy May Marlene provides a great opportunity for Olsen to make her mark. Since this is her debut performance, however, it might be worth taking all the near-unanimous raves heaped upon her with a grain of salt. Olsen does a great job of slowly revealing the full extent of Martha’s paranoia. It will be interesting to see what she does with her career from this point on. Some of the more extreme notices she received for this role have strenuously suggested that a star has been born. We’ll see.
The DVD is exceedingly light on supplemental features, though its single feature is quite intriguing. Sean Durkin’s short film, Mary Last Seen, is a low-budget, quickly-made prequel of sorts to Martha Marcy May Marlene. Brady Corbet appears in both, in roughly the same capacity. In the short film, his character introduces Mary (Stefanie Estes) into a cult. Despite its miniscule shooting budget, the short film looks great and stylistically matches Durkin’s feature. It’s a nice inclusion as it hints at how Martha may have been coaxed into becoming a cult member without quite knowing what was happening.