Martha Marcy May Marlene-attachment0

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Movie Information

The Story: The story of a young woman who attempts to get away from a cult and reclaim her life for herself. The Lowdown: Highly acclaimed quasi-thriller that didn't work for this reviewer, but has impressed an awful lot of folks.
Score:

Genre: Drama Thriller
Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Louisa Krause
Rated: R

At least once a year—usually during awards season—we get a movie that everyone goes lollipops over that I not only don’t “get,” but I just plain dislike. This year has had more than its share actually, though the clear winner is newcomer Sean Durkin’s awkwardly-titled Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene. I never like to completely condemn movies like this, because they obviously have an audience—and there are usually good things about them. This one is no exception, though from a personal standpoint, my feelings are largely summed up by what I told the studio rep at the press screening—“It’s a badly photographed dreary little movie about dreary people I didn’t care what happened to.” Bear in mind, I’m in the minority here and your response may well be at odds with mine.

I should have known I was in trouble when I saw this film compared to the work of Michael Haneke. I did, however, expect technical competence, though since that is not invariably necessary in the realm of the indie film, I don’t know why I should have. Even so, I don’t know when I’ve seen such badly lit, murky cinematography in a theatrical release. This, of course, is excused by the film’s admirers as an aesthetic choice. Maybe, but it looks like ineptitude, amateurishness, or an insufficient budget for lighting equipment. The fact that scenes in the woods are often perfectly exposed makes me lean toward ineptitude.

That to one side, the story is all about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, whose acting is quite good, but not perhaps as revelatory as is claimed), who at the beginning of the film is living in a kind of communal cult headed up by Patrick (John Hawkes, also good). The exact nature of this cult is only made clear over the course of the film—via sometimes too-clever flashbacks—but it’s not really spoiling anything to say that it’s a kind of bargain-basement Manson family, but without any clear agenda. The point at the beginning is that Martha—rechristened Marcy May by Patrick (the Marlene being the all-purpose name for answering the phone)—wants to leave the cult and so calls her estranged sister, Lucy (TV actress Sarah Paulson), to come get her.

Lucy takes her to live with her and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy in a thankless role), in the conspicuous-consumption lakefront home they’re renting. To say that Martha doesn’t fit in would be an understatement. She has no sense of propriety—thinking swimming nude in public is OK and clambering into bed with Lucy and Ted when they’re having sex—and zero social skills. Even allowing for the fact that she’s been traumatized by Patrick and her experiences in the cult—to the point where a combination of paranoia and withdrawal from the only place she fits in have made her sense of reality sketchy at best—the film constantly threatens to make the character seem downright simple-minded.

The cult scenes are often disturbing—especially, the business of Patrick rewriting the girls’ lives to suit his image of them until they believe it themselves, and the process of drugging the newcomers so he can have sex with them by way of initiation—but I’m not sure what the point of the whole thing is. Nor am I clear on the point being made about the shallowness of the materialistic Lucy and Ted. Neither of them are likable, it’s true, but they’re generally less annoying than Martha—and I don’t think the idea was for the audience to find her annoying. Yet that’s mostly what I’m left with.

I do not, however, think this is a bad movie—apart from the photography and its in-your-face indie cred, which has become just as cliched as the worst of mainstream film. I merely think it’s not a movie for me. I neither enjoyed it, nor did I feel like it had anything of note to say. Others—even in the group I saw it with—found it compelling, deep and even terrifying. You may too. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

12 thoughts on “Martha Marcy May Marlene

  1. Me

    Murky, the film was beautifully shot but not consistently shot. What scenes threatened to make her look simple minded, she was the one chose to run away? The cult philosophy was very simple minded so much so that the people in the theater were laughing at their waxing.

  2. Ken Hanke

    the film was beautifully shot but not consistently shot.

    I expected you to mount a defense, because it was shot like indie films have come to be shot — with little or no supplemental or fill lighting. The fact that it’s “not consistently shot” is what makes it look amateurish.

    What scenes threatened to make her look simple minded, she was the one chose to run away?

    Her inability to grasp even the most rudimentary concepts of behavior and that she always follows up having these things pointed out to her with a blank stare.

    The cult philosophy was very simple minded so much so that the people in the theater were laughing at their waxing.

    So simple-minded, in fact, that it’s hard not to wonder about the intellect of those falling for it.

  3. Me

    So you just didn’t like the lighting part of the cinematography? Its not like they were using a bad day for night technique. It just felt inconsistent between the here and now scenes.

  4. Ken Hanke

    So you just didn’t like the lighting part of the cinematography?

    That’s a pretty major part of cinematography — unless it’s mumblecore and there you’re lucky to be able to see much of anything.

    Its not like they were using a bad day for night technique.

    No, it’s more like they don’t understand the first thing about lighting.

  5. Me

    Apparently the guy that did the cinematography is on the list of Variety’s 10 cinematographers to watch.

    I believed her blank stares more dare i say than Catherined Deveunues.

    Would you say this is one of the better horror movies of the year or would you even put it in tha category?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Apparently the guy that did the cinematography is on the list of Variety’s 10 cinematographers to watch.

    Yes, I can read the guy’s bio on the IMDb, too. It doesn’t change my opinion. I’ve seen one other movie this guy was DP on — the abysmal Tiny Furniture — and was no more impressed by it than this. But I recognize that this is the current rage with the art/indie powers that be.

    I believed her blank stares more dare i say than Catherined Deveunues.

    I wouldn’t try to stop you from believing that. I wouldn’t even try to stop you from spelling “Catherine Deneuve” that way.

    Would you say this is one of the better horror movies of the year or would you even put it in tha category?

    I wouldn’t say it’s one of the better anything of the year.

  7. Me

    They did a really great job editing between cuts too, the cult philosophys needed to be a little more fleshed out, other than that im looking forward to seeing what the director can do in the future.

  8. Me

    I know print is dead but i wish Mtx could have pinched the extra penny and added editing to their site. That’s why i logged on to see if anything was different. I also wish you would not be snide and just discuss the movie at hand.

  9. Me

    So if your not a fan of low contrast desaturation why kind of cinematography do you like, can you give a film example?

  10. Ken Hanke

    So if your not a fan of low contrast desaturation why kind of cinematography do you like, can you give a film example?

    “Low contrast desaturation?” In this case, it’s called underexposure. Desaturation is what you see in J. Edgar or Sweeney Todd.

    What kind of cinematography do I like? Go watch Almodovar. Go watch Hugo for that matter. Go watch Kubrick or Ken Russell. Hell, go watch The Tree of Life. If prefering professionally lit and photographed films over this sort of thing makes me old-fashioned or whatever, I’m cool with that.

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