Martha Marcy May Marlene
by Jef Burnham
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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Writer/director Sean Durkin’s first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, relates a young woman’s (Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House) efforts to cope with life after joining a cult. The film generated a lot of buzz last year on account of the breakout performance it showcased from Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen indeed delivers a commanding performance, but a combination of Durkin’s ability to relate his protagonist’s emotions visually and the film’s depiction of a thoroughly-researched, wholly-believable cult make the overall experience something special.
In addition to Olsen’s performance, the Martha Marcy May Marlene features John Hawkes (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Winter’s Bone) as cult leader, Patrick, in a powerfully-haunting performance. But the film’s real strength comes in Durkin’s ability to support Olsen’s performance in the editing and the visuals at virtually every turn. The film’s structure reflects the character’s mental state as the brainwashing of her past infringes on her current interactions with her sister and brother-in-law. To this end, Durkin shifts seamlessly between timelines through careful match-cutting to achieve this bleed through effect, and the often soft, desaturated image lends an additional visual aid that underscores Martha’s inability to distinguish reality.
Of course, this unconventional structure makes for a rather unconventional film. As such, the traditional three-act structure of film narratives, although present, does not readily reveal itself. And the film’s conclusion, appropriately, deviates from the predictable, action-packed climax that other filmmakers may readily have given in to. In short, given Durkin’s efforts to present an emotionally realistic look at the effects of cult life on one’s daily interactions with the outside world, the film abandons narrative convention. As a result, Martha Marcy May Marlene serves as an atypical but fantastic feature that introduces viewers to two promising new talents in Olsen and Durkin.
This release features Durkin’s award-winning short, “Mary Last Seen,” which served as a sort of trial run for Martha in which he explored several tactics employed by cults to recruit new members. Additional features include “The Psyche of a Cult,” “Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen,” “The Story,” a conversation with the filmmakers, a making-of featurette, and a music video of John Hawkes’ singing his cover of Jackson C. Frank’s “Marcy’s Song,” which he plays in the film.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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