Written & Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
MPAA: R – For Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content, Nudity, And Language]
“Fear is the most amazing emotion of all, because it creates perfect awareness of everything.”
There are good movies and there are bad movies. And then, as a paradox to that golden rule, there are bad movies that we all enjoy, and there are good movies that we will never, ever watch again. Such is the case of Martha Marcy May Marlene, an absolute masterpiece of a film that I will actually go so far as to say is a “game-changer”, as it takes a simple concept, injects an innovative film-making technique into it, and does so much with it, but with so much grace and so much subtlety, while still getting under your skin.
And boy, does it get under your skin. It’s so disturbing, uncompromising, and near-nauseating to view that I probably won’t re-watch it for a very, very long time. But make no mistake, the film is not graphic, nor is it over-the-top. It’s uncomfortable to view because of just how well it brings the viewer into the mindset of its psychologically tortured protagonist, played astoundingly by Elizabeth Olsen. Despite the film’s tendency to disturb, this movie is an absolute must-see.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens with a young girl named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen in her debut performance) escaping from an abusive cult and moving in with her sister, who she hasn’t seen in two years. Despite being three hours away from said cult, Martha still doesn’t feel safe, battling through bouts of paranoia and lucid flashbacks of her traumatizing experiences there. Soon, she begins losing track of what’s reality and what’s memory, or perhaps even whether they are memories or dreams.
Many people have already been comparing this film to another Sundance hit that received Oscar hype (and a Best Picture nomination), Winter’s Bone, a movie that I personally thought to be rather overrated and snooze-worthy. I honestly don’t get the comparison other than the focus on young female-characters dealing with rough patches in their lives, and that they both star the amazing John Hawkes in a supporting role.
If there is one movie that I will compare it to, it’s actually my 2010 movie of the year, Black Swan. Okay, okay, now Black Swan is also incredibly different (perhaps even more different than Winter’s Bone) from Martha Marcy May Marlene, but they both strike up interesting parallels. They both deal with the fragile psychological states of their respective female protagonists, and they both like to flirt with the boundaries between reality and imagination. But while Black Swan was an incredibly melodramatic, bombastic, and near-over-the-top film, Martha Marcy May Marlene is subtle and restrained, never going too far, but still so close to the edge that the deep crevices of the canyon you’re staring into become all the more terrifyingly high. Despite the subtleties, it’s still just as intense–perhaps even more–than Black Swan.
It’s also interesting to compare the performances of both films. Natalie Portman was fantastic in Black Swan, but it was a really external performance that required a lot of crying, self-mutilation, and screaming. What Elizabeth Olsen does here is just as fantastic, but all the more remarkable because of how internal she portrays Martha’s psychological turmoil. She’s able to convey an astounding amount of emotion and visual information with just the smallest facial expressions. It’s the gift of a born star that you can just feel a woman’s fear just by the look on her face, and nothing else. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and I foresee a great career for Elizabeth Olsen.
Speaking of which, I’ve heard a ridiculously surprising amount of people outright dismissing this movie just because it stars one of the Olsens, despite knowing next to nothing else about the movie. Hell, my own economics teacher literally advised our entire class to avoid the film because “Ahh, the Olsen twins have a sister! Just when we thought we wouldn’t have to see their faces again!” This is just downright unfair, in my eyes. Just because she’s related to some much maligned actresses, doesn’t mean she deserves automatic disapproval. It’s especially annoying to hear when it turns out, Olsen is definitely Oscar-worthy for her performance.
I’ve said before that the film is a game-changer, and I am not over-exaggerating when I say that. First time director Sean Durkin has realized how done-to-death the psychological “what’s real and what isn’t” thriller has been, so he’s employed an amazingly innovative editing technique that truly does blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Editing is an especially under-appreciated talent in the film industry, but I hope that Martha Marcy May Marlene changes all that. Thanks to some ingenious transitions, the switches between Martha’s reality and her flashbacks are so buttery smooth that the viewer is truly immersed into the psychological state of Martha.
To give you an example, my favorite shot (that can also be seen in the trailer) is when Martha is about to jump into a lake from a boat, and then the editing suddenly switches it from her jumping from the boat to the lake, to her jumping from a small cliff into a river, and the transition is so fluidly done that your mind pretty much blows itself.
Another thing I’m not over-exaggerating is just how disturbing the film is. It’s not enjoyable to sit through, and the tension is absolutely nerve-wracking. I hate quoting other reviewers, especially reviewers that I don’t normally agree with, but David Chen from Slashfilm said in his written review that he actually would’ve walked out of the theater if it weren’t for the incredible amount of talent put into the film.
It’s odd. There’s nothing incredibly graphic about it, there’s only one scene of violence and it’s really mild in terms of graphic detail, and it’s also not all that sexually explicit like Dogtooth. Sure there’s a few sex scenes here and there, but hardly any of them are anything that’ll make fundamentalists want to “ban the filth”.
Basically, Martha Marcy May Marlene is disturbing because of how immersed you are into Martha’s mindset, how gut-curdlingly real her indoctrination is, and how relentless the paranoia and tension just builds and builds. You just know that something bad is going to happen, but it keeps staving itself off and everything all culminates in what is my favorite ending of 2011, featuring one of the most haunting and pitch-perfect final shots I’ve seen in recent memory. Yet it never goes too over-the-top, it never resorts to a high-octane chase sequence or a gore-fest. To give you a sense of how well the suspense works, the audience in my screening of the film literally gasped at a certain scene involving a knife, something that is actually rather hard to do these days.
Final Verdict: Martha Marcy May Marlene is pure tension, ground up into a fine powder, and force-fed into the viewer’s eyeballs. It’s a high that is exhilarating, but too much to handle a second time. It ranks up with films along the lines of Requiem for a Dream, Blue Valentine, and Irreversible: A haunting experience that lingers in the head long after first viewing, that’s hard to enjoy in the traditional sense due to its disturbing content, but also an astounding piece of film-making with near-unbearable amounts of intense, slow-building tension, a mesmerizing debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen that screams “Oscar nomination”, innovative editing techniques, and a perfectly ambiguous ending that will have viewers’ heads scratching for years.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel like watching re-runs of Full House for some weird reason and I have no idea why. “Everywhere you look. Everywhere…”