Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene
PLOT: Martha (Elizabeth Olson) is a young woman who's spent the last two years living as part of a cult headed by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). Having escaped, she moves in with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy), while keeping secret her history with the cult.
REVIEW: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is one of the big breakout hits of this year's Sundance Film Fest. Waiting in the press lines at each film, I've heard a lot of excited chatter about it, and now, with Fox Searchlight picking it up for distribution, this looks to be on of the big indie titles of 2011. Sure enough, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (or “The 4 M's”, as I've been calling it) is a dynamite piece of work.
To me, this feels like this year's WINTER'S BONE, with the most obvious similarity between the two being that John Hawkes appears in both, and that this also features another star-making lead performance from the young female lead; this one being Elizabeth Olson. The younger sister of the Olson twins, she's a revelation, in a very difficult role. Looking at Olson, it's easy to imagine her being a big star within a few years, with her projecting a maturity and strength that seems beyond her years. The only complaint most have had about this film is that Martha, as played by Olson, seems far too intelligent ever to be taken in by a cult. I think those folks might be missing the point a bit though, as the film goes to great lengths to show the way she's been slowly indoctrinated by Patrick and his minions.
The film cuts back and forth between Martha's indoctrination, which leads to her being renamed Marcy May, and her return home. The scenes set at the cult compound are unsettling to say the least, with John Hawkes taking a radically different approach to this type of role than Michael Parks did in Kevin Smith's RED STATE. Hawkes comes off as more of an even-tempered, sensitive guy, and he doesn't indoctrinate with racism, homophobia or anything like that. Yet, he's just as sinister, particularly in a harrowing scene where he ritualistically rapes Martha, afterwards explaining that he was “initiating” her into the family. It's a shocking scene that drew collective gasps from the audience I saw this with.
As much as this film will put Olson on the map, director T. Sean Durkin also deserves a lot of recognition, as this is one of the most brilliantly directed first films I've ever seen. The film mostly takes place at only two locations, with Patrick's compound in the woods, and Lucy and Ted's posh vacation home on a lake. Both are remote locations, and really drive home that fact that these characters are on their own, with no help anywhere in sight. With Durkin also having authored the screenplay, he strikes me as a major new talent, in addition to Olson. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is easily the best film I've seen at the festival so far, and I can't really see anything being better at this point. It's a remarkable, truly exciting indie that is a perfect example of the type of film that Sundance is so perfectly designed to showcase.