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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 44
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Tense Martha Marcy a character-driven marvel
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Now Playing


Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has come home. She called her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from out of the blue, unsure of what to tell her, more unsure of what to ask. But they are together now, and the younger sibling feels safely ensconced in Lucy and her husband Ted's (Hugh Dancy) New England lakeside country home. Whatever transpired, whatever happened, that's all in the past, and the two young women are now in a position to reconnect like they haven't in years.

If only it were that simple. Martha is haunted by her time away, incapable of putting into words what transpired between her and the strange, even-tempered man she knew as Patrick (John Hawkes). She can't talk about being renamed Marcy May, about making friends with the other women working and living upon Patrick's farm, or about what it was like to be a part of this male-dominated atmosphere. There are moments she wants to return to that world, brokenhearted that she chose to run away.

But other times her thoughts are not so pristine, not so ebullient about her experiences, and the fear that spreads throughout her bones is so all-encompassing her shrieks sound like daggers diving straight into the very center of Lucy's heart.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an emotional knockout. Written and directed by newcomer Sean Durkin, this movie is an immersive, utterly mesmerizing marvel intensely focused upon the inner workings of its main character and how events have conspired to transform her into a shell-shocked survivor, unsure of which way is up and how deep the rabbit hole into which she descended goes. It is a film about pain, about sacrifice, about family and forgiveness. But most of all, it is a film about the choices we make and how they define us, in the end asking questions about trust and togetherness difficult to grapple with and even harder to find a comfortable answer to.

The movie is dominated by Olsen's star-making performance. Closed, closeted, played as close to the vest as anything you can imagine, the gifted youngster makes every ounce of Martha's pain visible in a way that cuts to the quick and severs the jugular. She doesn't say a lot and yet everything is right there within her eye, within her body movements, within the way she curls herself upon the bed, holds a beer, or asks a question of her sister's curiously effete husband. Her transformation from jovial, almost fearless upstart into something timid, at times even feral, is astonishing. Olsen makes every syllable and gesture resonate in a way that is as immediate as it is devastating.

It helps that Durkin has surrounded her with an accomplished supporting cast that makes this story sing even more profoundly. Hawkes isn't a picture of cultish evil or backwoods smarm, instead choosing to portray Patrick as a mildly benign everyman who moves with a confident slowness that belies his ultimate intent. He's every bit as incredible here as he was in his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, giving this movie a startlingly sinister center that's as beguiling as it is tragic.

As for Paulson and Dancy, both do exquisite work, and even though their characters are rather sketchily written they give them a three-dimensional authenticity impossible to ignore. Also quite good are Julia Garner, Louisa Krause, Brady Corbet, and Christopher Abbott portraying fellow residents of Patrick's commune, each in their own way responsible for facets of Martha's journey.

The movie slips between the past and present sometimes jarringly, Durkin shuffling between Martha's current situation to the events that molded her into the state she is now in with a herky-jerky energy fitting his protagonist. Some will find this unnerving, but for me, this tact works close to brilliantly, allowing the climactic moments to reverberate through me in a way they might not have otherwise. The film builds to a conclusion that is as shocking as it is stunning, the last moments forcing me to hold my breath to such an extent I almost thought I'd pass out from the tension.

A case, I guess, could be made that Martha Marcy May Marlene is such an insular story, so relatively simplistic that it isn't quite deserving of its fractured, almost painfully nondescript finale. I would happily disagree with that sentiment, the film not only earning its critical, tragically obtuse (and even somewhat horrifying) final scene, but also deserving of all the acclaim I can throw its way. Durkin has delivered a fascinating, character-driven marvel, a sensational drama I can foresee myself debating the merits of for many years to come.








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