Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – Film Review

martha marcy may marlene movie review

Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Certificate: 15

by Nate Wisniewski

If you incline that way, you could hurl a few accusations at Martha Marcy May Marlene. Firstly, the title is terrible. It’s never a good thing when you can’t remember the name of the movie you’ve just seen. It’s also very slow and its controversial ending is dividing opinion among critics.

But stop. Because this film, whatever it’s called, is fantastic. It is chilling, unnerving cinema and beautifully shot. It looks sensational in an imperfect, non-digital, satisfying way. Cinematographer Jodie Lee Lipes and his bag of tricks do more than visually excite. Often, subtle camera effects are used to enhance the intensity of scenes and create a deeper sense of paranoia in the natural world of the characters.

On top of this, the script is also excellent, as writer/director Sean Durkin somehow portrays a story about a woman’s indoctrination into a cult, and her subsequent abuse, in a relatively unbiased way. Even the main antagonist Patrick (an excellent John Hawkes) presents as a round human being, albeit one with highly questionable motives and rhetoric. This, coupled with the lack of exposition in the film about Martha and the cult, makes it an intense, unnerving watch. Its slow pace and zoomed out, long camera shots add to the sense of the unknown.

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“Disturbing realism and a controversial ending”

I’ve not been in a cult. But I’d imagine that this film has got as close to any other as capturing what that is really like. And it’s this disturbing realism (and a controversial ending that I wont spoil for you) that makes the film play on your mind for some time afterwards. Elizabeth Olsen is superb in her career-launching lead role. Her fragile, innocent depiction of Martha is central to the success of the film. Alongside her, Sarah Paulson’s Lucy brings a world-weary riposte to the eccentricities of Martha. The relationship of these two characters and our understanding of it, is at the heart of the film.

I’d really rather not say anything else. In a film low on exposition, I don’t want to give too much away. But if you like challenging cinema then get out and watch this darling of the Sundance Festival before it’s undeservedly short theatre run comes to an end.


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