After running away from an abusive cult up in the Catskill Mountains, Martha takes refuge with her estranged sister and brother-in-law in their Connecticut lake house. Turns out Martha's been missing for two years. While she eventually starts to come around and be incorporated into her sister's family, Martha's paranoia also starts to set in, leaving her believing that the cult and its mysterious leader Patrick are still watching her.
After hearing so much about MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE from a variety of sources (coincidentally a lot of it from a Marcey that I know), it was nice to finally sit down and see what all the fuss was about for this Sundance darling. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, there's a very good reason why the film has been getting good reviews. Besides the film, you know, being one damn fine psychological thriller.
Hands down, the reason for this film getting the buzz is star Elizabeth Olsen's performance as the vulnerable Martha. Hard to believe that she's the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, since she's downright amazing in her portrayal of our psychologically damaged protagonist. From her body language to her speech nuances, Olsen presents a fragile yet fascinatingly appealing character that you can't help but be drawn towards. You almost feel bad for wanting to know what went on during her two years in the cult and even before her indoctrination, since it's clear that Martha problems began before she met up with Patrick.
Speaking of Patrick (not me, since I'm not that important), John Hawkes is another gem with his performance that bears more than a few similarities to Charles Manson and his Family of followers. Guitar playing aside, Hawkes is both the charismatic and sleazy guy you'd expect to be the leader of a cult. His disarming charms that would most definitely attract those vulnerable members of society looking for a place to belong give way to psychological manipulations that are definitely unpleasant.
All of this is wrapped up in Durkin's masterful direction. The man has woven a film about identity crisis with constant doses of paranoia and tension that no doubt will have folks more than a few times feeling the panic that Martha feels. Even the way that the film is shot builds up the panic. At the beginning of the film, the tracking shots mimic the smooth and disarming ways in which the cult entices new followers. Later on this gives way to handheld shots and odd angles that cast an uneasy feeling on the viewer, much like how the cult is revealed to be what it really is.
I'd almost say that the film feels perfect save for the ending. Yes, I agree that it leaves you asking more questions than answers and personally feeling out of place (which is what it's intention was to be), but there's a bit too much of an absence of closure for Martha and the circle of characters. Some people might be more inclined to this ending than I am, but that's okay. It still doesn't take away the fact that this film is an engaging ride that not only has most (if not all) of its bases covered from the performances to the cinematography.
This being a screener, there's nothing official yet. Save for trailers for CHRONICLE and SHAME and a 15 minute short film by Durkin called MARY LAST SEEN that focuses on Patrick's cult as seen from one of his followers. Through some onscreen notes prior to the short, Durkin explains that that he wanted to make a film that gave more insight into how people end up joining cults. The short itself isn't as good as the main feature, but it's a curiosity.
Bolstered by some great performances and a gripping atmosphere, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is definitely one of the strongest psychological thrillers that I've seen in a while. Durkin's camerawork brings the viewer along for the ride and puts us right there with Elizabeth Olsen's wonderful performance. Definitely worth the time to see something that provokes questions as much as it entertains.