JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Martha Marcy May Marlene (Director/Writer: Sean Durkin) - January 7, 2012
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Martha Marcy May Marlene

4 4
102 min.

Reviewed for the 2011 Toronto InternationalFilm Festival
Do as I say …

Also moving from short to full-length feature thanks again to the Sundance Film Festival Institute (cross-reference below) is Sean Durkin’s sadly believable portrait of an impressionable girl’s lure into then escape from a cultish commune which extolls polygamy, selective selflessness and near-penal servitude once the effects of systemic brainwashing take hold and—all too often—won’t let go.

It falls to Elizabeth Olsen to carry the film as Martha, who has had enough of her taste of self-sustaining nirvana (and if the cupboard runs bare, a bit of murder and pillage à la A Clockwork Orange can be executed to ensure the survival of the clan) and particularly the spiritual/sexual leader Patrick (John Hawkes oozes convincingly throughout the role of dictator without pause).

After two years of total silence, Martha’s only port in this physiological/psychological storm is her elder sister’s summer house: just a three-hour trek from the former centre of real family in her collapsing universe. Lucy (Sarah Paulson is a gem as the make-everything-better sibling) puts duty ahead of all else and unequivocally re-admits Martha into her world. Architect husband Ted (gamely played by Hugh Dancy) has a few insecurities of his own but—temporality—is beguiled by his sudden sister-in-law’s unabashed beauty (going for a skinny dip—to Martha—whether neighbours see or not is one expression of her new self; interrupting her host’s fervid intercourse seems all in a day’s work have been “passed around” in the commune; the only false note, er, arises, when Ted’s up-close-and-personal, how-to-steer-the-powerboat lesson excites a bit of heat but never finds resolution one way or the other).

Lucy seems astonished by her kid sister’s expertise in the garden (What do you think communists do?) then a little taken aback when the booze flows way to fast at the “modest” gathering for dozens of shallow friends. No worries: pharmaceuticals to the rescue again.

Despite much probing, Martha is reluctant to fill in the blanks of her “lost” years. Through Durkin’s carefully crafted back-story flashbacks (marvellously rendered by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and expertly stitched together by editor Zachary Stewart-Pontier), viewers learn far more than Lucy ever will or want to know (a shooting lesson while in “custody” has an interesting mantra: “Transfer lust to the gun”) the home invasion gone bad elicits “Death is beautiful” as still another rationalization of existing differently, far from the mainstream.

“There are other ways to live,” deftly, purposely summarizes Durkin’s premise. Whether that succeeds (cinematically or literally) must remain in the purview of the beholder. JWR

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