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Martha Marcy May Marlene

by on February 25, 2012
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In an interview, writer/director Sean Durkin said he proposed the title “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and would have been happy to change it once he heard a better choice. He never did. I love the way the title is presented on the DVD box, where one “M” begins all three names. When the film begins, the audience should be pondering the mystery of the title. It’s not a spoiler to say that the title is just one name, not three.

If it were all three names, there would be commas separating them. Or perhaps even a hyphen or a dash. Instead, all of her lives are now blended together, and that internal struggle is what makes this a captivating film.

Elizabeth Olsen plays “Martha,” as I’ll call her in this review, a woman who recently escaped from a cult run by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”). The psychology behind such a traumatic event is all dictated by what personality the world calls her to be. The cult leader pushed her to be something specific and submissive. Martha’s sister tries to push her back toward something society sees as normal. None of it fits.

Martha lives like she is in a dream. Whenever she moves or acts, she’s not even sure if what she’s doing is real. First-time director Durkin manages to perfectly convey that through the uneasy feel of the movie. There is never a sense of doubt that something is not “real” onscreen a la “A Beautiful Mind,” but there is doubt as to what is Martha’s reality. How safe is she? How is her world moving? Is she right in her actions?

Nothing is concrete, so the movie works like a floating leaf. Every scene is fascinating to watch as it flutters on through the first few weeks of Martha’s return. Anything but the perfect balance of all the elements would make this story disingenuous. Durkin and Olsen deserve all of their accolades for a production that really felt like anything could happen at a given moment. It’s a powerful film.

The DVD and Blu-ray has a really great bonus feature called “Mary Last Seen.” It’s the short film Durkin wrote and directed before making this movie as a test run. It’s another 13 minutes of cinematic confidence as a woman is being taken to a cult with consent. It’s a very strong short film. Then there are plenty of small featurettes that are edited with too many of the same clips from the movie. Each is just a few minutes long and should have spent more time with interviews of Durkin, Olsen and Hawkes.

Film: 4.5 Yaps
Extras: 3.5 Yaps