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Martha Marcy May Marlene

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” may be the worst date movie ever. It’s up there with “Precious” and “Blue Valentine” as both squirm-inducing and tragically true. But like its gut-wrenching predecessors, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” boasts gorgeous performances, a compelling story and imagery so strong the audience can’t look away, no matter how much it wants to.

Elizabeth Olsen (who until this bravura breakthrough was known as the younger sister of “Full House” twins Mary Kate and Ashley) is all halting speech and haunted eyes as Martha, a lost soul who’s recently escaped from a cult where smoky-voiced leader Patrick (John Hawkes) christened her Marcy May before subjecting her to mind control, sexual victimization and horrific violence. (Martha was also known as Marlene for reasons explained later in the film.) Only certain of her need to flee, Martha reaches out to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for the first time since disappearing two years ago. Originally at their country home for two weeks of rest and relaxation, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), must now adjust to a young woman who thinks nothing of crawling into their bed during sex and who’s clearly traumatized but refuses to speak of her former life.

At two full hours, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” should feel long but has the quick pacing of a thriller — and in a way, it is. Director and screenwriter Sean Durkin employs the dreaded writers’ cliche “show, don’t tell” with aplomb, artfully intermingling Martha’s difficulties in assimilating with progressing flashbacks of her cult life. Cults are known for preying on lost souls, and Durkin doesn’t hide the manipulation worked on Martha from her first visit to the compound while illuminating how the young woman would not only fall hook, line and sinker, but would then subject herself to a dehumanizing initiation rite. With only a few throwaway lines, Durkin deftly illustrates Martha and Lucy’s troubled family history and complicated present. Even before the third-act reveal, it’s clear how desperate Martha was to escape, that she reached out to a sibling who never understood her — and really never tried.

A warning for women who have survived violence: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is basically a series of triggers. For Martha, a benign kale smoothie recalls an act of brutality and it only gets more disturbing from there. For those fortunate enough to remain sexually unscathed, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” instills a simultaneous sense of paranoia and deep sadness. The plot is gripping, the action suspenseful, the acting stellar (especially Olsen, Hawkes and Brady Corbet, the latter as a devoted brute). Though it’s not a candidate for repeat viewing, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is stunningly effective and left me looking over my shoulder all the way home while fighting back tears.

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12 Responses to “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

  1. […] many ways, it’s a more exploitative version of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — the enigmatic 2011 film that established Elizabeth as the only Olsen sister worth any continued […]

  2. […] “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Hugh Dancy, Rated R) […]

  3. Sandi Mojzuk says:

    Did not like this movie at all. Talking after showing with several other attendees, the feeling was mutual. No one liked it, some not the whole movie, some the ending. Either way, it was not something I would recommend.

  4. Bliss says:

    I hadn’t heard about this movie. After reading the review and comments, I am interested in seeing it. Although, it sounds as if it will be a bit disturbing, the review made me want to see it.

    Thanks for telling it like it is!

  5. Jeshua Drown says:

    This movie was so thrilling! It really hits you right in your heart. I would recommened it to eeryone.

  6. Andrew Doehrman says:

    I saw this film, and found it chilling. Elizabeth Olsen gives a riveting, engrossing performance, and however you feel about the abrupt, withholding ending (I was shaken by it, as was most of the audience I saw it with, if there audible gasps were any indication), the film is worth seeing for Olsen’s performance alone.

  7. Keith says:

    I really thought this movie was great, but obviously it made others uncomfortable. As I was leaving the screening, an elderly woman in front of me was telling the surveyor how it was "disgusting" and a "horrible movie". She then went on to say that people should see Tower Heist instead, remarking that "you’ll have a grin on your face the whole time". People next to me whispered to each other about how "weird" the movie was. I think the intent of the film was to take people away from their comfort zone. And it inherently will, because it’s not a Hollywood mass-appeal spectacle. When people say "this is a weird movie", they’re more likely saying, "this is a kind of movie I’m not used to, and that makes me uncomfortable". Some will react positively, some can’t accept that a film will be anything but dumb fun.

  8. DANI H says:

    This was a powerful psychological thriller, building suspense by giving you small tastes of the experiences in a cult of the main character, Martha, intertwined in the telling of her escape and attempt to reunite with her sister. At times you can’t tell whether you are watching the Martha’s present or her past, just as you can imagine that she can’t as her reality struggles to separate the two. Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is remarkable. The ending? A surprise (unless you’ve read the spoilers), and perhaps an unwelcome one, but it made for great conversation over drinks.

  9. Jackie says:

    This movie has a horrible ending…. I agree, Definitely not a movie to go see on a date :)

  10. angib says:

    We saw this at a screening also. It was so disturbing and innocent at the same time. We definitely did not like the ending though and left feeling a little let down.

  11. Chris Sims says:

    A friend took me along to see this screening. The acting of Elizabeth Olsen was amazing. I agree that she almost looked to be without a soul. I love how non-chalant she was about some of the transitions of learned behavior to normal life. This movie is definitely a must-see, but I also agree that you won’t want to watch it over and over again. The chorus of "Awwwwwwwwww" at the end was also entertaining to hear. I was one of the few who had an appreciation for the director’s choice of ending. If I wanted to see a different ending, I would ask Hollywood to do a remake. This was a spot on review. Good stuff.

  12. James Whaley says:

    Saw this movie at a Screening very good. Creepy and Beautifully done. The main problem with this movie is that I wish it was longer. I was mad at the way it ended. So I hope that this great Thriller has a sequel.