{2jtab: Movie Review}

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Movie Review


<div style="float:left">
<script type="text/javascript"><!--
google_ad_client = "pub-9764823118029583";
/* 125x125, created 12/10/07 */
google_ad_slot = "8167036710";
google_ad_width = 125;
google_ad_height = 125;
<script type="text/javascript"

5 Stars

The sense of dread that comes bubbling from the soil of Martha Marcy May Marlene is an oily one indeed.  Sticky and messy, it is also rich with promise.  Within minutes, the pastoral opening of men slinging their tools and women prepping meals shifts seamlessly into a black filmy substance that blocks out the throwback vibe of the setting and invites the utterly present response of fear.  Writer-director Sean Durkin's dynamic debut is about one grown woman’s nightmarish experience and eventual escape from a backwoods guitar-picking and knowledge-searchin’ cult.

Atmospheric and genuinely haunting, Martha Marcy May Marlene is low-budget horror from the Vel Lewton old-school class of filmmaking.  While we don't have scenes of tension that are dissipated by a sudden noise, we do have a character that, frustratingly enough, is her own dissipation.  Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen is Martha?.  Her fragile performance as the troubled woman on the run is sweet and somehow also menacing…just like the cult she has escaped from.  As much of the movie's narrative comes from her own back pages, we must trust her version of the events that occur in the Catskill Mountains.  Something in how the memories unspool suggests otherwise, though.  As tragic as Olsen is, her paranoia invokes a real tension that cannot be ignored.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie that casts doubt and anxiety on its victim even as it offers the extended hand of hope.

Martha (Olsen) takes refuge from a dangerous rag-tag commune (who collectively believe in sharing their women – by drugs or by force – and that death/murder is the ultimate signifier of love) by seeking solace with her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  Lucy, not knowing of Martha’s whereabouts for a good two years, is surprised by her sudden phone call from a payphone and rescues her immediately.  She brings her to her husband’s grand summer house that is cozily nestled beside a clear blue lake in Connecticut.  Slowly, Lucy and Ted begin to ask her about where she has been and what happened.

Martha tells them made up stories of a loser boyfriend and denies what they both suspect – a relationship full of abuse - by her shocking behavior around them in the days and weeks that follow her rescue.

The truth is seen via her memories.  Days blend into the past as Martha remembers what her life was like on the farm as Marcy May.  Led by the gangly Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha wonders blissfully at times back into the dreamlike quality of her time in the cult.  Other times, her memories are laced with tears.  Patrick’s teachings are with her.  He is a powerful presence throughout and uses his quiet approach to speech as a way to manipulate his followers.  He also uses sex as an indoctrination device; a sort of baptism if you will.

Martha remembers to fill the void in the “normal” life that surrounds Lucy and Ted as they try, unsuccessfully, to make a baby.  She corrects their language and their beliefs with what the cult has taught her about life and leaders.  All the time, a sort of tension is building because – as Martha surrenders to her memories as actually reaches out to the cult through a phone in the summer house – the cult knows exactly where Martha is.  Their particular brand of violence is an eerie one indeed because of their belief system.  And it is getting closer to the peaceful surroundings of Lucy and Ted’s home.

Olsen brings the film its dynamic punch by showcasing the strength in Martha’s character that suggests she might be strong enough to survive the brainwashing but allows us a chance to believe that there is a danger in her that has not gone untouched by the twisted kindness of a soul-demanding performance from Hawkes.  The two actors are perfect balances of polarization that keep the film’s momentum from every being bogged down by it’s inherently slow burn effect.

Much accolades must be heaped upon first-time director Durkin.  This is a tight-fisted thriller that is more about restraint than rocking its audience with shock and awe.  While there are harrowing moments of rape and murder, it is the quiet, reflective and trance-like scenes of physical peace vs. inner turmoil that brings out the true beauty of this motion picture.  Also of note is the dangerously edgy and dark cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes who produces a hell of a lot of fear out of a natural setting.  These two artists swing a powerful axe that visually topples the disturbed and inscrutable wooded-psyche.

With little bloodshed and only the psychological aspect of one victim’s drive for survival or return as its elemental helter-skeltering mojo, Martha Marcy May Marlene is one hell of a legitimate horror film.

{2jtab: Film Details}

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Movie ReviewMPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.
: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen; John Hawkes; Sarah Paulson; Louisa Krause; Julia Garner
Genre: Drama | Thriller
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Memorable Movie Quote: "There's no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist."
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Official Site:
Release Date: October 21, 2011 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: February 21, 2012

Synopsis: Stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a damaged woman haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, who struggles to reassimilate with her family after fleeing a cult.

{2jtab: Blu-ray Review}

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Movie Review

Component Grades

Blu-ray Disc
5 Stars

4 stars

Blu-ray Experience
4.5 stars


Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - February 21, 2012
Screen Formats: 2.40:1
: English SDH, Spanish
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; French: Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)
Region Encoding: A

The dreamlike haze that clings to the picture really snaps to life in this 1080p transfer. Colors and quality are balanced as we shift between the two realities that impact this film. While it does create an impressionistic sense of the modern world, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s overall visual component is top notch and sublimely real. Flesh tones are as real as the atmosphere.  Pink and never warm, the picture holds its elasticity well as the camera covers the flesh tones of the picture and its residents. Colors are well-worn like a summer’s day and the strongest hues bleed out from the blues and deep greens of the location. Detail is deep and depth is good in spite of the low contrast cinematography and muted stylings of the visuals. Sound is good. Provided by DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, the sound design is equally matched with its lush picture. This is not a summer blockbuster full of booming noises. No, in fact, there are long stretches where silence or the film’s ambience carries the weight of the mood for the picture. This soundtrack is the vehicle to take it there. Good stuff. The disc also includes French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, along with English SDH and Spanish subtitles.



  • Break my heart, why don’t you?  No word from the filmmakers.  None.  Ugh.

Special Features:

You get a good deal of supplemental materials, though. Beginning with the short film that filmmaker Sean Durkin made while writing the film.  It’s interesting because it shows another tactic that cults use to get recruits and it’s really well done. Following that are your standard interview EPK-styled featurettes that highlight Elizabeth Olson and Director Sean Durkin and producers Josh Mond and Antonio Campos. There are many discussions concerning the filming of the movie and the general atmosphere on the set.  In the final two featurettes, Cult experts discuss the structure and influences of cults and actor John Hawkes performs the song he performed in the movie.

  • Mary Last Scene (13 min)
  • Spotlight on Elizabeth Olson (3 min)
  • The Story (4 min)
  • The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene (3 min)
  • A Conversation with the Filmmakers (3 min)
  • The Psyche of a Cult (5 min)
  • Marcy's Song Music Video by John Hawkes (4 min)
  • Theatrical Trailer

{2jtab: Trailer}