Martha Marcy May Marlene Review
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The Olsen Twins have been Hollywood sweethearts for years, turning their sitcom stardom into a multi-million-dollar empire of videos and clothing lines. All that time, no one paid any attention to their little sister Elizabeth, who suddenly came out of nowhere to wow crowds at Sundance with her haunting portrayal of an escaped cult member in writer/director Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.

For the past two years, she’s been called Marcy May—but then Martha (Olsen) escapes from the farm where she’s lived under the control of quietly manipulative Patrick (John Hawkes) and returns to her real family.

The transition isn’t an easy one for Martha. After two years of living and sharing everything with a big family in their cramped farmhouse, she suddenly finds herself living a perfectly civilized life in a big, empty lake house with her cool but caring sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). And as she makes an awkward attempt to move away from her dark past, she finds herself haunted by her old life, fearing that the worst might not be behind her yet.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quietly haunting drama about a troubled young woman and the unsettling past she’s left behind. The story moves back and forth, often seamlessly shifting from Martha’s experiences within Patrick’s cultish commune to her strange new life with Lucy and Ted. The film is cleverly edited—and, the deeper you get into the story (and into Martha’s fear and paranoia), the harder it is to tell the difference between the past and present. It’s unsettling—and often frustrating—but it’s all done for a very good reason.

Olsen, meanwhile, gives a breakout performance as Martha, quietly depicting the character’s confusion and fear with those big, brown, hauntingly expressive eyes. While her over-exposed older sisters seem to have passed their Hollywood prime, hers is just beginning—and it seems pretty likely that her star will someday shine just a little bit brighter (though it probably won’t be as flashy or as sparkly) as her sisters’.

Unfortunately, though, the film is far from flawless. Durkin leaves a few too many important questions unanswered—especially where the cult is concerned. When Martha/Marcy May first runs away, it seems like little more than an unpleasant living arrangement—not exactly one necessitating a late-night escape. And while her recollections get darker and darker as the movie progresses, her paranoia still seems somewhat excessive. What’s worse: through all of her fears and nightmares—through all of the challenges she faces in readjusting to “normal” society—Martha never once tells her sister what she’s been through. So many of the awkward situations—and her family’s frustration—could have been avoided, had she just explained what she’d left behind. They could have supported her—and gotten her the help she needed. Instead, they all end up angry and confused and generally stressed-out—for no good reason.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fascinating and richly layered film—and an impressive debut for both Olsen and Durkin. This definitely isn’t the last you’ll hear from either one. Still, its shortcomings, unanswered questions, and overall bleak tone can make it a frustrating—and rather exhausting—experience.

Blu-ray Review:
The Blu-ray release of Martha Marcy May Marlene is loaded with short extras, which offer fans of the film just a quick look behind the scenes. Most are just a few minutes long, briefly touching on topics like the plot, the filmmaking trio, and breakout star Elizabeth Olsen. Perhaps the most fascinating feature, though, is The Psyche of a Cult, in which a therapist discusses what a cult is, why people get involved, and how the film manages to capture the experience.

Still, the focal point of the special features menu is Mary Last Seen, the low-budget short that Durkin made while he was writing the screenplay for his first full-length feature. Instead of exploring a character’s transition from life in a cult back to the outside world (as MMMM does), Mary tells the story of one young woman’s introduction to a cult.

While none of the extras go especially in-depth in their examination of the cast, the crew, or the making of Martha Marcy May Marlene, their brevity makes them a little more accessible than longer, more detailed features. So if you’re fascinated by this quietly haunting indie, I recommend taking just a few more minutes to explore the options offered on the special features menu.

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