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Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - Film Review

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by Haydn Radford (subscribe)
Haydn Radford -A freelance writer born in Adelaide, who loves living here. I write about movies, theatre, entertainment, literary and art events. I am happy to promote & review your events.
Published February 12th 2012
Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - Film Review
Patrick gives Marcy May a shooting lesson

Debut writer-director Sean Durkin's movie Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene won him a Best Director award at Sundance.
Although his chilling psychological thriller has been described by some critics as a horror movie, Durkin has been quoted as saying, "I am happy with that", and that he "loves horror movies", but he doesn't like them when they get bloody.

Durkin's screenplay is not as bloody like many horror movies, but it is a dark and unsettling story concerning a young woman Martha (first-time actress Elizabeth Olsen) escaping from a dangerous cult located in a rural location somewhere in upstate New York. This disquieting cult and its charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) Winter's Bone , had a peculiar manner of re-naming his followers as a means of implanting psychological ownership. Martha, known within the cult as "Marcy May" fears Patrick could be pursuing her. Some audiences may associate the similarities of Patrick's followers with Charles Manson and the Jonestown cults and the horrific deeds they committed.

After being mysteriously absent for the nearly two years, Martha phones her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and insists Lucy pick her up. Martha moves in with Lucy and her wealthy husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) into their lakeside home. Martha is unwilling to discuss her experiences whilst her flashbacks reveal signs of her abuse and dysfunction, which prevent her from adapting to a normal life. With good reason she is terrified the cult will find her.

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene - Film Review
Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson

The screenplay has a dark dream-like structure that utilizes flashbacks from Martha's present life to experiences she recalls as Marcy May that indicate the manipulations she and other women experience by Patrick and the cult. There are moments the editing from her present life to her painful past life experiences are so subtle that the viewer may identify with Martha's uncertainty of not being able to recognise what is reality from her delusions. When interviewed Durkin stated he purposely scripted this way, adding he "always had a clear idea how much information he wanted the audience to have." However, this may remain to be too confusing for some audiences.

What was particularly different and engaging for me with this film was Durkin's lack of background music to heighten the sense of drama. When you think of the many classic suspense and horror movies and the powerful music soundtracks that are associated with the dramatic scenes in movies like Psycho, Vertigo and Jaws, can you imagine the knife slashing murders in Psycho, without the accompaniment of shreiking violins?

It was a quite a new experience to experience no music; just the background sounds of either the wind, footsteps, water, and traffic especially during the tense home invasion scenes by the cult to hear only the sounds of the characters' actions and conversation was quite erie. I would not have thought it possible but it did provide a sense of immediacy.

Mind you there is music briefly during the opening scene and again briefly later in the film. There is also a scene where Patrick's powers of character possession over Marcy May in the commune are seen with the performance of a folk song entitled "Marcy's Song" which is dedicated to her. The folk song was actually composed by Jackson C. Frank, but has now been identified with the film, which Durkin readily admits pleases him, "because she feels like the song is written for her".

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene is a demanding and disturbing film with a certain ambiguity that leaves the audience guessing at the outcome for Martha Marcy. My companions felt denied the exciting action driven conclusion they were anticipating that would clear much of the uncertainty and mystery that was created. Initially I also felt a certain disappointment with the ending.

Subsequently, after reading interviews about Durkin and what he wanted to achieve with his film, it appears he didn't want the usual bloody action driven climax, but purposely set out to create the suspense and tension, leaving certain issues unresolved. He states he was influenced by certain studies that show people who join these cults experience great uncertainty as they attempt to return to their former lives and rediscover what is the truth for them.

However, with great certainty I can say that the performances of the entire cast are magnificent. Elizabeth Olsen can take pride in her starring role as Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. She delivers a stunning portrayal of a woman experiencing deep-rooted paranoia from memories that trigger an entire range of emotions that drive the drama.

*** Out of *****

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Why? Elizabeth Olsen's debut performance is memorable.
Where: Check your local cinemas
Cost: Standard movie pricces
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