Martha Marcy May Marlene: A Fascinating & Haunting Insight into a Cult

By   |  November 23, 2011

Minimalism in film can be achieved in many ways and is common whether in some of the more cult hits or indie variants.  Indeed, when it appears, minimalism shouldn’t be that surprising to notice because it is a bit commonplace, but when it works, it is stunning to still see the results of a well-made film done with so little.  So is the set-up for Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that thrives in its minimalist vision of the fascinating topic of a cult and its chilling aftereffects. Both psychological and atmospheric, Martha is a quiet but powerful dramatic film that is not to be missed.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the name of the main character (Elizabeth Olsen) who runs away from a cult she has joined. The only person she knows is her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes Martha to her and her fiance’s (Hugh Dancy) lake house.  As Lucy lets Martha recuperate, Martha begins to reminisce about her life with the cult as she is challenged by her sister and her fiance on the beliefs as a cultist.  Martha must soon face both these challenges and herself, created by the cult atmosphere, which was led by Patrick (John Hawkes), throughout the duration of the film.

On the one hand, there are some detractors to the overall film which include some strange editing choices and its perhaps over-reliance on its plot devices.  Throughout the main film, because of its heavy reliance on its actors and atmosphere, the filming process itself becomes much more apparent along with any slight miscalculations.  Namely, there are some editing choices that are understandable in their usage but feels more like a damper to the pacing and the tone from misplaced fade outs to some back-to-back editing choices that don’t entirely work as intended.  Just as well, some of the plot devices do sometimes seem too obvious and set-up than organically introduced, although this complaint is not a blanket statement.  Just in some cases, some story beats, which may feel as if they were intended to be more shocking, come off more short-lived.  Finally, and once again, not apparent in the entire film but only in some specific cases, there is some dialogue that pushes on the err of being too melodramatic, creating some imbalance in some of the more intimate or emotional moments.

However, these complaints feel minuscule next to the accomplishments of the film as a whole.  Namely, the film revolves around setting up such a rich and tense atmosphere with nothing more than flashbacks, editing tricks, rich dialogue and a great soundtrack.  These great film elements are well-calculated and well-executed without feeling cheap or unoriginal.  Grouping these elements is important because they work as a whole.  The soundtrack, for instance, is fairly non-existent throughout large portions of the film but when it does come through, it slowly creeps into a scene and just elevates the tension and atmosphere that is being evoked.  This relates to the entire film which is not about quick thrills or fast scares.  Instead, it broods and feels out its story with quiet moments and intriguing moments that are nearly always interesting to watch play out.  The next element comes from the strong set of actors.  There are some great supporting roles in the film such as John Hawkes who plays the eerie but omnipotent cult leader with such great conviction and earnest solitude.  However, the greatest acting accomplishment comes from the titular character, Elizabeth Olsen, who has to balance playing both the transforming cult member to the runaway stray who tries to acclimate back into a society that is against her prior values.  There’s just an array of emotions that are always played subtly but emotionally packed that makes the performance fascinating to watch and to be sure, one of the best characters and acting performances of the year.

The final element that really completes the entire package is the plot itself.  Both psychological and dramatic, the film plays both the audience and Martha.  It really is one of those scenarios in which one can say, ‘just when you got it all figured out, you don’t.’  Whether this effect is intentional or not, it makes for a great number of revelations and overall, a fascinating and (mostly) unblemished look at a cult and the potential effects it had on one of its members.  The end product is emotionally touching, slightly creepy and more or less fulfilling with an ending to really match the weight and vindication of the entire plot thread.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a minimalist dramatic film that achieves so much with having to do so little.  Although some may complain about various questionable editing choices or a plot that becomes a bit too stringent on its framing and patterns, its accomplishments far outweigh its detractors.  From the amazing performance of Elizabeth Olsen to the tense and atmospheric story, Martha is fascinating, haunting and engrossing insight into both the strange life of a cult and the intimate and disturbing aftereffects one can have from the experience.  Its minimalist filming at its finest and is definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.  

Director: Sean Durkin
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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