Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)
When this film ended I didn’t know if I should be angry, sad, worried or happy. Maybe happy isn’t a choice at all because there isn’t a moment of happiness in this entire film. Shot and acted like a drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene was actually quite scary. I feel this is because of the use of a heavy sounding score that could have been used in films like The House of the Devil. The film tells the story of a girl named Martha who 2 years earlier joined a cult that ends up being abusive and traumatic. When the film begins, Martha escapes the cult and calls her sister to come pick her up in upstate New York. As the film continues, Martha has sudden flashbacks of her time in the cult and sometimes gets those moments confused with present time. Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen twins, plays Martha and she is phenomenal. Being her film debut she was wonderful and will hopefully have a great career in acting. Another notable performance is of John Hawkes, who plays the leader of the cult.
At the beginning of the film I was intrigued by the situation Martha had put herself into. One of the first scenes includes all the men in the cult eating in silence as all the women sit in various spots throughout the house, waiting for their turn. This immediately seemed odd and gave me horrid feeling. When Martha escapes a girl is seen in the window watching her leave the house and walk across the road. This girl doesn’t say a word, maybe because she wishes she had the courage to escape too. The people in the cult seem to be damaged girls who didn’t have the courage or resources to make it in the real world. The leader, Patrick, brings these girls (and some men) into his life and comforts them and then controls them. In almost every scene at the cult, you see Patrick gleaming over his followers. A disturbing aspect of Patrick is the way he calls Martha “Marcy May” and tells her that she is everything to him. This is brought across very well in a scene where he plays a song in front of everyone calling it “Marcy’s Song”.
When Martha is with her sister and brother in-law, she is confused and out of her element. She feels disconnected from the world although she knows she could never bring herself to go back to the cult. Throughout the film she acts strangely by jumping into the lake naked, crawling into bed with her sister as she is having sex and brings about random outbursts of anger. During all this her sister is trying to figure out what exactly happened to Martha when all she says is she lived with a crazy boyfriend. During a flashback Martha is shown with the cult distracting a homeowner by throwing pinecones at his windows until he comes outside. Once he is outside the group sneaks into the home to steals random supplies. At her sister’s lake house, Martha hears pinecones hitting the roof and the deck. As the film goes on Martha begins to think that the cult is watching her and has discovered where she is living.
The transitions from present to flashback are very well done and keep the pace of the film quick. During one scene Martha dives into the water off of her in-laws boat, to then emerge in a river with the cult. I’m not sure if it was just the copy I had but the entire film had a washed out tone to it. I’ve seen production stills and they look very nice and clean but when I watched the film it was all kind of over exposed. Well, either way I liked the look of the film a lot and felt it helped portray the emotions of Martha. The film is shot just like every other U.S. indie film. There are offset angles and objects in the way of the camera constantly; this is not a bad thing. One technical aspect I really enjoyed is the several long-takes that had a constant slow zoom.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting film that constantly keeps the viewer engaged and wondering what will enfold next. Although it is a drama, the film feels like a thriller and has several moments that will scare and disturb the viewer. After watching this film, I don’t think I’ll ever be able hear the tap of a pinecone hitting the roof without wondering if it was purposely thrown.