Martha Marcy May Marlene [DVD] 
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A fleeing cult member struggles to re-adapt to life with her sister's family in this award-winning psychological drama from director T. Sean Durkin. Although she now lives a tranquil life at her sister Lucy (Sarah Poulsen)'s home in Connecticut, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is still haunted by the memories of her time spent under the spell of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) at his retreat in the Catskills. As the weeks go by and Lucy's family struggles to cope with her increasingly erratic mental state, Martha becomes filled with an increasing sense of foreboding and paranoia, as she fears that Patrick is about to return and exact his revenge.
Martha Marcy May Marlene creates a sense of uneasy suspense within seconds of coming on screen: a young woman, who will be known by all the title names at various times in the movie, is escaping from a rural commune of some sort. And not just a commune, but by the looks of it, a cult--an impression that will grow as Martha flashes back to her experiences once she reaches the safety of her sister's antiseptic country place. It is part of director Sean Durkin's design that we experience the film as Martha's point of view, which means there may be some question about whether she's an emotionally unstable person to begin with or simply in a legitimate terror about the traumatising events that have unfolded for her in recent months. Although the film has one storytelling contrivance (Martha withholds her experiences from her sister, when a little exposition would help matters tremendously), in general Durkin keeps a lid on this simmering situation, and he's got a good compositional eye that only occasionally tips over into preciousness. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy play Martha's complacent but concerned sister and brother-in-law, and John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) is a spellbinder as the commune leader, a manipulator of subtle skill. (With some stories like this, you have a hard time believing cult followers could fall for these creepy charismatics; in this one, Hawkes demonstrates how such things might happen.) The movie's most unexpected and alluring touch is the performance by Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha; this younger sister of the child-star Olsen twins brings a zonked-out centre of gravity to the part. She's got just a bit of blankness, too, which enhances the movie's well-wrought guessing game. --Robert Horton
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Top Customer Reviews
Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman who escapes from a cult and goes to live with her sister and her husband in their idyllic country holiday home. However it is far from living happily ever after as the women clearly have serious issues in their relationship. We also see flashbacks of what life was like for Martha in the cult, which was led by a Charles Manson type figure. These show some startling practices that were treated as normal in the cult.
Martha has clearly been deeply traumatised by what she has experienced and demonstrates this with growing paranoia and mistrust. Her sister and brother in law struggle to cope with increasingly strange behaviour. The constant switching between time periods confuses the viewer so that we start to share in Martha's confusion about her identity (demonstrated by the title of the movie).
The movie moves slowly towards its conclusion with an increasing sense of menace as we see what the cult was capable of but be warned, the ending has no easy answers.
A lot of people will find this movie deeply unsatisfying and that is quite understandable as the director seems to go out of his way, at times, to confuse the viewer. The ending, in particular, is ambiguous. However it is very well made and has as its core a great performance from Olsen as the beautiful but psychologically damaged title character. Some scenes and lines will certainly stay with you for a while after seeing the movie.
Whether that is a good thing or not will be for you to judge!
The film is unusual in cutting continually back and forth between her life with her sister, in which Martha becomes increasingly more withdrawn and disturbed, and the two years spent in the commune, under the influence of the charismatic but at times menacing, possibly psychotic Patrick, who reminded me of tales of Charles Manson. You need to concentrate hard, not only because of the fragmented storyline, but also owing to the "naturalistic" filming technique, in which people often mumble as in real life, take part in normal, mundane activities and drift across the hand-held lens, perhaps appearing fleetingly at one edge of the screen. Occasional acts of violence erupt suddenly. At times, it has something of the "amateurish" visual quality of "The Blair Witch Project". Much is implied and little specifically stated.
Martha's problems of adapting to "normal life" are portrayed well, together with her relatives' predictable reaction, as when she bathes naked in the lake because that was what she did at the commune. The clash in their values is made clear. One's perception of the commune gradually darkens. At first, it just seems a throwback to pre-female equality days, as we see the women waiting to eat after the men, or the former selecting clothes off a communal rack.Read more ›
At the film’s centre is an outstandingly subtle and perceptive performance by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, apparently just escaped from two years in a 'cult commune’ (during which she has been alternately named Marcy May and Marlene) and thrown back into the 'comfortable reality’ of domestic life with sister, Sarah Paulson’s Lucy and her (Brit) husband, Hugh Dancy’s Ted. At a time when 'youth coercion’ (religious, sexual, capitalist, etc) is particularly pertinent, Durkin does a good – largely subtle and dark – job of demonstrating how gullible adolescents could be attracted into a new 'family’ and (particularly during the film’s first hour or so) makes some powerful and perceptive points around identity, social norms, alienation, trust, community and sibling relationships. The seamless (and deliberately confusing) cutting between Martha’s two worlds is generally very effective, as is the depiction of her increasing paranoia and the growing tension between her and Lucy/Ted (as a result of Martha’s increasingly eccentric, and seemingly irresponsible, behaviour).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Think Charles Manson. A eye into Spahn Ranch but not Spahn Ranch. best performance I have ever seen from an Elizabeth Olson, Well Done.Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
Beautiful natural lighting and camera work. Sunning compositions and Martha was mesmerising and totally convincing.Published 3 months ago by TK
Would have been four stars but the ending really spoiled it. It just ends abruptly and leaves you guessing and trying to fill in the blanks. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Aspie girl.
Olsen gives a good performance of someone suffering from the emotional and psychological effects of escaping a cult-like family commune where she has been previously abused both... Read morePublished 5 months ago by art
After hearing such good things about this film I was looking forward to it and in the main I was satisfied. Read morePublished 11 months ago by El Pedro
There should be no spoilers in this review.
The film is set during present day and during recent history, with the two time slots woven together very cleverly to reveal... Read more