Film Review – Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Sundance Film Festival has a reputation for being a launching pad for filmmakers. This is becoming more challenging, as increasingly lately it seems to be a premiere spot for the indie branches of film studios to screen their latest projects. Still, every year, a few true indies seem to break out…and Martha Marcy May Marlene should be one of those films. Produced by indie über-producer Ted Hope and picked up by Fox Searchlight, this has the potential to be a star-making film.

I’ll admit, the name of the film seems a little weird, perhaps even off-putting, since it doesn’t immediately convey what it is about. This isn’t necessarily the case, as it becomes clear from the film how clever the title really is. Not necessarily the best marketing strategy, but a nice nod for those who watch the movie. It is hard for me to classify the film; I would say my best guess is to describe it as part family drama and part thriller.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an elegantly simple indie film. It is the story of a woman who is trying to escape from a cult, told through two story streams—one about her indoctrination into the cult and one on her escape. Her escape is complicated by the fact she is afraid that the cult is going to be coming after her…though it might just be her paranoia getting the better of her. In some ways, the storytelling style reminded me of Memento, though the reasons why each film used it are different.

This is the feature length debut of the writer/director Sean Durkin, whose only previous credits appear to be a couple of shorts. For a first-time director, he shows no signs of inexperience, as he won the US Directing Award at Sundance, an award that is well deserved. He put a lot of time and energy into putting the story together, going so far as to interview former cult members to better understand the experience. Despite this being his feature debut, Durkin does an excellent job of keeping the flow of the movie  consistently building to the climax; none of the scenes feel unnecessary and all of the actors feel real and understandable.

This film is loaded with excellent acting performances, largely driven by Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Martha. It was a huge risk for Durkin to put this film in the hands of such an inexperienced actress, but it paid off huge. Martha appears to be the girl-next-door, but underneath the surface is a woman who has been extremely damaged. As the film goes on, the viewer learns just how deep the damage goes and why it exists. Olsen gives one of the best female performances I’ve seen this year and deserves to be nominated for Best Actress. This easily could be a breakout performance for her, much in the way Jennifer Lawrence broke out with Winter’s Bone last year.

Durkin made the wise decision of giving Olsen several veteran actors to play off of, most notably the wonderful John Hawkes. There are few actors the last few years on par with Hawkes. His indie work has shown me shades of Daniel Day-Lewis. I’ll be the first to admit that he has largely been playing dysfunctional parental figures (Winter’s Bone, Higher Ground), but his characters emanate so much emotion without even saying a word. I don’t know if the similarity here to the character Hawkes played in Winter’s Bone will hurt his chances of receiving a nomination, but his cult leader channels Charles Manson in creepiness.

Sarah Paulson (Serenity) and Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopalic) play Martha’s sister Lucy and her husband Patrick. Both have difficultly trying to cope with the sudden return of Lucy’s sister from having disappeared for two years. They try to understand her increasingly strange behavior while trying not to pry so much that they drive her away again, all while trying to survive the strain on their relationships.

The film uses a lot of jump cuts to change between the present and the flashbacks. Without actually telling the viewer the timeline, it still makes perfect sense, and Durkin is able to clearly connect the problems in the present with actions in the past without feeling like he is hammering you over the head. The film does a superb job of foreshadowing what is to come, and remarks that seem to be small or off the cuff come back with significant importance. The powerful foreshadowing takes what could be a tough family drama and turns it into a thriller.

Everything in this film comes together as a nice cohesive package. This is the kind of film that justifies the backlash against Hollywood for spending their money on remakes and sequels. At the very least, hopefully the studios will see the talent in the filmmakers and actors here; in particular they would be wise to snatch up Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen.

Final Grade: A-


Spencer was born and raised in New Mexico. He grew up with the many great films of the 1980’s before having his world rocked after seeing The Usual Suspects. He moved to Washington State to go to the University of Washington, and currently any free time he currently has is split between working on film projects and watching films.

Follow him on Twitter or email him.

View all posts by this author