Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 


Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Brady Corbet, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause, Maria Dizzia.

Director: Sean Durkin
Rating: R
Running Time: 120 Minutes

Release Date: October 21, 2011
Home Video Release Date: TBD
Box Office: $TBD

Maybach Cunningham, FilmHaven Entertainment, BorderLine Films, This Is That, and Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Written by: Sean Durkin


“Well…she’s here now.  She seems okay…” – Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a film that is unique, bold, and original, a mystifying and intense look into the psyche of a 20-something young woman who has escaped from the confines of a cult in upstate New York after a couple of years and has contacted her older sister for help.  Marking the feature film debut of director/screenwriter Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen,the younger sister of former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is not just an affecting story well told, it also ushers in the voice of a confident and unflinching filmmaker and a fearless performance from Olsen, who presents as an extraordinary new talent to pay close attention to.

Easy to follow, but told in a non-linear format, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins with a brief sense of calm and peace.  Durkin swings his camera in and around a large expanse of land where people are milling around, talking, laboring, living.  As the camera swings inside a main house on the property, things become a bit more uncomfortable.  Several women, all approximately in their late-teens or early-to-mid 20’s are preparing a meal and then shutter themselves off into a cramped, tiny little room, so several men can come in and eat.  When they are finished, and only when given the go-ahead from a man we later come to know as Patrick (John Hawkes), the women clean up dinner and prepare for the remaining chores to be completed by the end of the night.  Clearly, Patrick is the leader of these people and the realization that this is akin to a cult-like environment is masterfully introduced by Durkin.

Escaping the next morning is Martha (Olsen), who makes that pay-phone call to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson).  Despite receiving the call, Lucy must work hard to pull the details out from Martha about where she is so Lucy can come get her.  They have not spoken since Martha went away and in bringing her home, Lucy has countless questions but opts to not ask them.  Instead, she focuses on Martha becoming comfortable and at ease in the vacation home she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).  The comfortable and wealthy existence that Lucy and Ted share is jarring to Martha, who settles in for what is expected to be an open-ended, but short-term, stay.

As Martha becomes more accustomed to life with Lucy and Ted, puzzling behaviors soon emerge.  Martha asks seemingly random questions alongside direct and blunt ones.  She fixates on certain details and overlooks more obvious ones.  She also embodies a carefree, no-boundaries lifestyle and societal norms appear lost on Martha.  Quickly, Lucy and Ted began to reassess the situation they find themselves in by welcoming Martha back into their lives.  As much as Lucy does not ever want to lose her sister again, she also has no idea what to make of Martha’s temperament, demeanor, and view of the world.  And yet, Lucy still cannot bring herself to ask the questions of Martha we all, as viewers, want her to ask.  Durkin’s brilliant screenplay lives and swells in these uncomfortable and unspoken moments.

Anchoring the film’s power and depth is the extraordinary Elizabeth Olsen performance which lies at the heart of each and every scene in the film.  Even if not physically present in each scene, Martha is there, dominating the lives of the characters she encounters.  As Durkin finds subtle details in the present-day narrative which enable the story to shift into flashback, Olsen is a revelation and her abilities in navigating through a wide-ranging palette of fractured and damaged emotions defines her work as one of the finest performances of 2011.

When the film takes us back to the compound that Martha called home, we see the role she played, the life she lived, and the relationships she had with fellow residents and Patrick himself.  We learn the rules and the harrowing protocols that must be followed each and every day.  Soon, we see the horrors of a life promised to be better, believed to be enriching.

Nominated as a Best Supporting Actor for his work in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”, a cinematic cousin of sorts to the atmosphere and feel of this film, John Hawkes is ice cold in his portrayal of the enigmatic and merciless Patrick.  Hawkes gives a great performance and clearly gives us proper insight into how these vulnerable women and men would be drawn in and seduced into his ideologies and way of life.  At the same time, he has the fear of God instilled into everyone living with him, including Martha, and in one unforgettable scene, he serenades her with a folk song that by its conclusion, shifts the notion of family and acceptance into one of disquieting terror.

Sarah Paulson’s work is noteworthy and Lucy is someone you are equally frustrated with and empathetic towards.  Hugh Dancy is not given a whole lot to do as Ted.  His character makes a couple of half-hearted attempts to connect with his newly found sister-in-law, but in totality, Ted, as a character, seems a but undercooked.

Sean Durkin’s directing of the film is impressive, but there are some notable weaknesses with the screenplay.  Make no mistake, he has written a strong work, but when all of the emotions began to pop, explode, and cascade to the surface with Martha, Lucy, and Ted, you realize that the film has been almost counterbalanced too much towards Martha.  For example, in a scene that should devastate and shake us late in the film, we are not experiencing the debilitating emotions on screen with Martha, Lucy, and Ted, but are simply observing them.  Perhaps this was intentional, but for a film as compelling and engrossing as this is, those crucial and important scenes fall disappointingly short.

Still, at the end of the day, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is riveting, distressing, and fascinating to watch and observe.  After seeing it, I was appreciative of the film and exhilarated by Olsen’s performance and Durkin’s storytelling.  I am curious as to how audiences will receive this film and whether it will become a player in the upcoming awards season.  Irrelevant to whether nominations are feted upon the film, Elizabeth Olsen is the discovery of the year thus far and helps carry “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to a place of impressive power and lasting resonance.

Should I See It?


Elizabeth Olsen.  Arguably the finest performance I have seen in 2011 thus far, she is fearless and unflinching in going to the places this story needs her to go to, to make this as effective as it is.  She is Oscar-worthy here and I cannot wait to see what she does and where she goes next.

Those who liked “Winter’s Bone” and other remote, quiet, suspenseful dramas, will be enamored with the film.  Sean Durkin has a tremendous ability at coating everything with a haze of intrigue and uneasy suspense that captivates the viewer almost immediately.

By meticulously trying to avoid cliche and formula, Sean Durkin’s movie does not fit nicely in a box.  You may not get all the answers and characters may refrain or hesitate when you want them to spell things out, but I applaud the resistance to tidying up all of this in a neat little bow.


The subject matter is rather bleak and can be challenging to watch.  This is not light viewing for sure.

Sean Durkin’s film does not easily connect the dots and answer every question you wonder about as a viewer.  At times, the film embraces its ambiguity and avoids the obvious.  For those who like their films to be more straightforward and wrap up all issues, this will potentially be a major disappointment.

Those who have had or know someone who has experienced anything remotely similar to this may find the emotions hitting far too close to home.


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