February 21, 2012
Elizabeth Olsen as Martha
Hugh Dancy as Ted
John Hawkes as Patrick
Sarah Paulson as Lucy
I don’t typically launch a film review with a cautionary disclaimer, but in the case of Martha Marcy May Marlene, I really feel it’s a necessity. If you’ve caught any early reviews of the film, you’ve likely spotted terms like “psychological horror” and “perverse chiller”; while this picture is certainly a melancholy effort, it is anything but horror. Sure the ideology is planted in the soil of the macabre, but the execution is dramatic to the deepest core, and I don’t feel for a single second that filmmaker Sean Durkin ever intended for this project to be labeled horror. Having issued my warning, I will say that the film is reasonably intense, and definitely worthy of a viewing or two; just don’t expect a genre offering because you will certainly feel slighted by the time the credits roll.
The Martha Marcy May Marlene story centers on Martha, a naturally stunning young lady in search of something new in life. While she does discover a new path to travel, it’s not as pleasant as initially perceived. In fact, Martha’s just stumbled into the middle of a strange cult, content to live off the land and the victimized. Patrick (John Hawkes) serves as the patriarch of this clan, and while he’s certainly charming at times, he’s in truth little more than a pervert who enjoys copulating with multiple women half his age; there’s not all too much in underlying social commentary, and while deeper exploration of Patrick’s motives may have been beneficial in outlining his intent and illuminating his character, I fear the maneuver may have pushed this one into preachy territory; for once, I issue thanks for obvious restraint.
When Martha, who’s been tabbed as Marcy May by Patrick, decides she’s had enough of the awkward lifestyle, she flees, in search of her sister and a means of definitive escape. Lucy, Martha’s older sister steps up to take Martha in, despite the fact that she’s been AWOL with absolutely zero communication with family for roughly two years. What follows is a simple character study, and knowing some of the abuse Martha’s been subjected too, it goes without saying that she’s got a wealth of emotional problems to sort out; none of which are very conducive to the lifestyle that Lucy and her husband Ted are living. To make matters worse, Patrick isn’t exactly keen on the idea of Martha leaving the cult and he’s willing to make an effort to bring her back into the fold.
There are some tense moments in Martha Marcy May Marlene, of that there’s no doubt. And while I certainly stand unwavering of my categorization, I’ll admit that some unnerving sequences do indeed await viewers. None of these scenes are particularly frightening, but there’s some fear in the notions, and this certainly isn’t aimed at the faint of heart. There’s a forced physical exchange that unravels in the earlier portions of the picture, and one brief serving that focuses on a home invasion gone bad. The film’s antagonists are never overtly aggressive or excessively violent in these altercations, but therein lie the irony, because that’s exactly what leaves an unsettling sensation in the abdominal region: this group is just too damn cool and calm while in the eye of the storm.
I applaud the Martha Marcy May Marlene cast here, because there really aren’t many identifiable cracks onscreen. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha) is absolutely spellbinding as Martha; seeing a healthy Olsen with genuine talent take the lead in an impacting dramatic work is kind of like seeing a blind kid solve a Rubik’s Cube in 10 seconds flat. It just seems awfully surreal. John Hawkes (Patrick) should also be extended major respect, as he’s absolutely creepy. In fact, if there’s any element of the feature in which you can make the case deserves to be acknowledged as frightening, it’s Hawkes’ performance as a whole. Rounding out our focal performers are both Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, who portray Lucy and Ted. While neither performance feels especially riveting, the truth is, these two, in many ways face a tougher task than a few other’s involved in Martha Marcy May Marlene: this is a relatively young couple with a few problems of their own, drawn into a world with a slew of strangers who each present imminent danger (both directly and indirectly). It’s a wide spectrum to travel, and Paulson and Dancy are admirable in their efforts.
I’ll reiterate: if you opt to invest in this film do not do so expecting a horror product. Expect to find yourself witnessing some uncomfortable situations and a damn big load of passion on showcase. The film, though a tad slow in spots is disturbing, and really a memorable project, however it will not conjure much in terms of legitimate fear. In the end, despite being far more drama than anything else, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a worthy watch. It’s just not a genre effort.