Simply put, this is a fascinating and frustrating film, the kind of film that is sure to divide the audience. Writer/director Sean Durkin has made a movie that offers up a great deal of content while also offering very little in surrounding details. It is the sort of movie that requires the viewer to be an active participant. Only being that active viewer can you get the full effect of the movie. It is not constructed in a fashion that will lead you along to a nice and tidy conclusion. It may be evenly paced, but it is also a bit chaotic and disconcerting.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a daring film that uses a fractured timeline, with each piece fitting in with the one preceding and the one following but never in chronological order. It is a challenging watch, to put the pieces together as some of them are not necessarily in the correct order, there is no traditional timeline here and some of them may not even be real. There is the possibility of imagined/dreamed events. The possibility of imagining some things is an idea introduced by the main character when she asks if you ever wonder if something you dreamed could be mistaken for reality. Kind of throws a wrench in the works of what we saw before and will see after.
The movie centers on a young woman who we come to know though the integration of two timelines, neither one complete by itself, leaving much of the connective tissue to be inferred or created in the viewer's mind. The timelines are blended wit some very nice editing techniques, sort of forcing you into her fractured state, not unlike the backward storytelling used in Memento.
The opening sees men outside working and women inside preparing dinner. The men come inside and sit around the table and eat, the women wait outside. As the men finish and leave, the women go in and eat whatever is left. Yes, this is odd and there is no dialogue.The scene shifts to the next morning, one of the women sneaks down the stairs, out the door, across the road and into the woods. She is pursued by others living in the house. It is pretty clear that this is not exactly am ideal situation.
Well, the story split's between Martha's (Elizabeth Olson) time in that house and that after she runs away and reunites with her older sister. The timeline then starts to shift between her attempt to heal and reintegrate into normal society with her sister and her husband and her time of indoctrination in what amounts to a cult.
Martha is dubbed Marcy May by Patrick (John Hawkes), who renames all of the newcomers to his compound. The women and men are treated very differently and all of hem are required to find there way and what their role is. The women all are brainwashed into feeling special (by way of rape) by Patrick in his quietly charismatic role as leader.
This movie does not have the easiest plot to describe. It is probably better to think of it as an experience. To put it as simply as possible it is about a woman with a fractured psyche, caught between her time of cult indoctrination and her current period of trying to resume a normal life.
This movie does a fine job of putting you in that fractured state where past and present collide as a the mind attempts to correct itself. It does not help that her sister does not recognize the level of damage done to her, nor that her brother in law does not seem to really want to try and help. In a way, she is caught between two worlds where she does not belong.
Elizabeth Olson (younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley) is a revelation. She delivers a brave performance that is utterly convincing. She makes it look easy to portray the damaged youth. It is definitely impressive for her first major role. She is supported by a fine cast with the previously mentioned John Hawkes leading the cult and Sarah Paulson as her sister.
Audio/Video. The film is presented in it original ratio of 2.35:1 and while it is not the best looking Blu-ray I have ever seen, not by a long shot, it is very accurate to what I saw in theaters. The movie is about perception and shifts between reality, memory, and dream, it is a tale that lives in the grey areas. The visual look of the movie mimics that with a style that has a certain softness to it paired with a realistic color palette that avoids big splashes of color. Blacks look more dark grey and details are not always sharp, but it still looks right.
Audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It is a quiet moody track devoid of anything that could be considered loud. The rear channels bring in some nice ambiance to the country set sequences and when paired with the score can create quite the moody and unsettling atmosphere. This is a movie that does a lot more with quiet than it does with sound.
Extras. There is a little bit of bonus material to be found on this release.
- Mary Last Seen. This is a short that was made by Sean Durkin prior to production on this feature and it could be looked at as a prequel of sorts. It is a good short that fits the mood and tone of the film.
- Spotlight on Elizabeth Olson. A brief interview with the star a she discusses her character.
- The Story. Movie clips mixed with interview clips as they discuss the story.
- The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Looks to be an extension of the The Story clip.
- A Conversation with the Filmmakers. An interview clip that discusses the genesis of the project and its production.
- The Psyche of a Cult. An interview with Rachel Bernstein, a cult expert, about the structure of a cult.
- Marcy's Song Music Video by John Hawkes. I love the haunting feeling of this song.
- Theatrical Trailer.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene on Blogcritics.