Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen astonishes in her feature film debut as a troubled young woman in writer-director Sean Durkin’s dark, psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene.

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Elizabeth Olsen turned more than a few heads in 2012. Her breathtaking feature film debut performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene proved to be no flash in the pan following further acclaim for Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts. Her portrayal of a mentally scarred young woman struggling to find common ground in the relative conventionality of her maternal older sister’s loving care is staggering in its emotional intensity. To reveal much more about the plot would dilute the unnerving, skin-crawling nightmare that unravels in writer-director Sean Durkin’s film. It begins like all dreams: confusing, curiously fascinating, unclear and far away; before spiralling uncontrollably into darkness. We’re bullied awake; sweaty, a scream caught in the throat, the bed sheets soaked with fear.

Like the confusing nature of dreams, time seems not to exist. Martha Marcy May Marlene almost seamlessly intertwines the title character’s inability to conform to her older sister’s maternal care with her life away from the family over the course of two previous years. In this “missing” period of time we are privy to the events that prove the catalyst to her mental instability. A bright, beautiful but impressionable and vulnerable young woman is drawn into a world that promotes freedom from the world’s social, moral and political codes in favour of simpler pleasures under the cloak of much darker aspiration. It is an alternate family from the one she has known and, through Martha’s unavoidable recollection, paints a counter balancing picture of togetherness, love, friendship, fear, sex, endeavour and ambition. It is certainly unsettling and draws us further into this girl’s diminishing psyche.

“Elizabeth Olsen displays Martha’s inner conflict with surreptitious, mature complexity. She has an ethereal presence that saddens, infuriates, arouses, moves; you simply can’t take your eyes off her.”

Central to the film’s appeal is of course Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister of fellow actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen depicts a fragility that invites the attentions of those that simultaneously try to help and break her. In a word she’s captivating. The ambiguous nature of the film, both in its character dynamics and story progression, ensures when one question becomes clearer another develops just as fast. Olsen’s Martha is an enigma, drawing both contempt towards her actions and sympathy. The actress displays the character’s inner conflict with surreptitious, mature complexity. She has an ethereal presence that saddens, infuriates, arouses, moves; you simply can’t take your eyes off her.

Although I felt the film left too many questions to be answered, it has an indefinable, intangible quality that stays with you. It begs to be interpreted in a unique way by each member of the audience and its lack of clarity in plot and character bolsters this. Indeed, if I consider the dream analogy, or should I say nightmare, we can only decide for ourselves whether Martha wakes up or is trapped in it forever.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Released: 2011 / Genre: Psychological Drama / Country: USA / IMDB

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See more great films from last year in Top 10 Films of 2012

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Raghav Reply

    Gorgeously written review… I might just quit blogging after reading this 😉

    As a film while I enjoyed the film it for some reason proved to be missing something. Maybe I saw it late, after people had raved about it. There were moments when I thought about similarities it had with Rachel Getting Married … Similar feel to both films.

    No doubt E Olsen is brilliant but I liked her more in Liberal Arts … In fact I preferred Liberal Arts as a film over MMMM.

    All in all a solid film no doubt. Cheers!!

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I agree with Raghav – terrific writing here Dan. I admit I’d skipped this one on the rental shelf but now it looks like I might have to pick it up – could be a good one to watch with the wife….

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Raghav: Very kind words, thank you. It’s one of those films that can infuriate as it leaves questions unanswered. One interpretation – like you say – is that it is missing something. I think I left the film thinking there was more to be had from the story but for me it’s all about the atmosphere it creates. This more than makes up for any issues I had with the story.

    @Rodney: It’s definitely worth seeing but is uncomfortable viewing.

  4. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Still need to see this film. It has been on my list for a while since I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. So far I’ve only seen Olsen in Red Lights, but that was a god awful picture. Once I watch MMMM and Liberal Arts I think I’ll have a more informed opinion about her.

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    ruth Reply

    I’m curious to see this mostly for Elizabeth Olsen’s performance (I mean I didn’t even know the Olsen twins have another sister!) but the subject matter doesn’t really interest me.

  6. Avatar
    Erik Reply

    Good review! It was one of my favourite films from last year. Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic, I hope we will see her more often.

  7. Avatar
    Colin Biggs Reply

    Films like these are so much more effective than cabin the woods horror because this is all too close to reality. Cults and zealots litter our evening news every night and it’s not hard to imagine it happening so close to home.

    It haunts you as the credits roll.

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