Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: Elizabeth Olsen is piercing in otherwise tepid "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Film Rating: C–

I finally had a free afternoon from the Starz Denver Film Festival today, so I used it to go check out the acclaimed “Martha Marcy May Marlene” over at the Esquire in Denver.  It’s not a film I feel particularly strongly about one way or the other, and as such, I really don’t have the energy right now for a full review.  But after the jump, I’ll provide some of my thoughts on the movie, and if you’ve seen it, I’d leave to hear what you made of the film in the comments section.

Continue after the jump…

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” aims to fill out the triptych of 2011 dramas that aren’t technically horror films but provide such deep-seated psychological scares that they may as well be.  The first two were Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” human dramas that disturbed me to my very core.  “Marcy Martha May Marlene” aims to do the same thing.  The main character, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young woman who has just escaped from the Charles Manson-esque cult she was a part of for two years.  She goes to stay with her older sister, but is haunted by memories of her past, memories that slowly begin turning into paranoia. 

It has all the ingredients for an unsettling psychological drama – the cult she lives with is scary precisely because we know a version of it has existed in reality – but is hampered by a few crucial flaws.  First, the pacing is languid, and not in a healthy, atmosphere-building way.  In fact, unlike “Take Shelter” or “Kevin,” the atmosphere is established almost immediately; the nature of Martha’s horror is never a secret, and while there are details of her past to learn, many of the blanks are filled in by the twenty-minute mark, once we’ve already spent some quality time with this disturbing cult.  But writer/director Sean Durkin really wants to hammer in the full terror of Martha’s situation, so the movie is mostly comprised of torturously slow sequences detailing every last inch of Martha’s life.  Some of it is quite interesting; most of it is repetitive, and I had more or less checked out halfway through. 

Second, with the special exception of Martha herself, none of the characters are engaging even in the slightest.  I understand that the focus of the film is Martha, but one character can’t carry an entire movie; the story must be populated with other characters we can take an interest in, but Durkin only writes types, at best.  The leader of the cult is creepy and disturbed; the girls in the cult are hive-minded and slightly unhinged; Martha’s sister is supportive but exasperated, etc.  The performers do their best to breathe life into their roles – John Hawkes effectively channels Charles Manson, for instance – but when all is said and done, these characters are boring.  When one combines dull characters with lethargic pacing, it’s not surprising that the result is so tedious.

There is one bright, shining star in the film though, and that’s Elizabeth Olsen as Martha.  Few actresses have ever given such an impressive debut performance.  As the title suggests, Olsen has to project many different sides of her character; the public face she wears for her sister, the communal personality required in the cult, and the scared, devastated little girl hiding far underneath her exterior.  That’s who Martha is deep down, and Olsen manages to hint at the character’s broken nature even when Martha is at her most functional.  This is a mature, accomplished performance, one any actress should be proud of, let alone someone who has never before starred in a film; I can’t wait to see what Olsen does next.

I can’t say the same for Sean Durkin.  He’s crafted a deeply flawed film (complete with an ending so ill-formed it actively angered me), but for a debut, there enough here to suggest that his talents could develop over time.  For now, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” isn’t worth seeing, despite having one of the more impressive performances of the year. 

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