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Martha Marcy May Marlene - Film Review

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by Matt Elliot Taylor (subscribe)
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon
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Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

As dreams and reality begin to fizzle into one, a young woman's already damaged soul must try to prevail. But, does the haunting become too much? And will she reach her breaking point in the independent art-house thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen twins Mary-Kate and Ashley) is Martha, a young, free-spirited individual with a very unique and almost nihilistic outlook on life and our function as human beings. She has recently run away from a hippie-like cult, that pose as some sort of small farming community that enjoy experimental healing and casual sex. Led by the nihilistic and nasty Patrick (John Hawkes), things become too aggressive and frightening for young Martha (known to the cult as Marcy May) to handle. She flees and is missing for two years before she finally contacts her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a highly-strung but caring wife to her workaholic and stressful husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). They take her in with open arms, but as she has trouble leaving her past behind, paranoia and hallucinogenic experiences begin to take over, sending her on a descent that no one can get her out of.

Her unsettling and painful experiences during her time in the cult are shown through flashbacks, flashbacks in her mind. This ultimately makes it quite difficult for the audience to follow what's going on half the time, because there is no clear transition. The film poses as a linear narrative, and although it might have been writer/director Sean Durkin's (his feature film debut) intention in an effort to remain subjective and very point-of-view throughout the picture, it ultimately loses the audience in places along the way. Because of this, the intensity does not reach a satisfying level. This is the kind of psychological thriller, where for it to work, the tension needs to be ever-building. Instead, it is broken by two things: (1) the confusion it causes the audience jumping back and forth without being very clear, and (2) some very slow-moving and superfluous scenes of empty, sadistic activity. Towards the end, the tension does build to a satisfying, inconclusive climax but it would have made a much bigger impact if more thought went into the setup.

The film is anchored by a very strong performance from Olsen, supported by Paulson and Dancy who are both excellent. It is a shame the script is a bit one-dimensional. For example, it would have been nice to know how and why she ended up in a cult in the first place. What were her motivations? What was the inciting incident? How did she find them? None of these questions are answered. Instead we are just meant to accept that she is who she is, but frankly, it's very difficult to sympathise with a character we know nothing about.

Despite its flaws in the story, direction and script, Martha Marcy May Marlene plays host to some very solid performances, particularly that of Elizabeth Olsen who should be offered more leading roles as a result. While the tension is constantly dropped throughout, it plays to an effective ending. Here's to hoping Sean Durkin puts a little more preparation into his next venture.

2 stars out of 5

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Why? Strong performances led by Elizabeth Olsen
When: 21 October 2011 (USA), 2 February 2012 (AUS), 3 February 2012 (UK)
Where: Your local cinema
Cost: Check your local cinema for details
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