Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie with Abe: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by Sean Durkin
Released October 21, 2011

Last summer, Jennifer Lawrence broke out in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” playing a tough-as-nails teenager looking out for her family amid horrifyingly violent and gruesome circumstances. This fall, another actress gets her breakthrough role in a similarly bleak and disturbing film, asserting her character’s toughness while still getting bruised quite a bit along the way. That actress is Elizabeth Olsen, previously known only as the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, but who will from now on be regarded as a serious, talented actress thanks to her film-making performance as the title chameleon character.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” doesn’t tell its story in a straightforward, linear fashion, instead choosing two timelines to flip between, as Olsen’s Martha reunites with her sister Lucy and her husband Ted after escaping from an experience somewhere between a commune and a cult. Martha’s uneasiness and struggles re-acclimating to a positive, peaceful existence are readily apparent, but they cut doubly deep when the specifics of Martha’s ordeal are revealed piece by horrifying piece. The knowledge that Martha will be able to successfully leave the abusive life she led provides little comfort since its effects have clearly remained to cause her great continued anguish.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” has an interesting premise, but it fails to capture at any moment the impact and intensity of her experience in a compelling and consistent way. Its storytelling style, however bold and well-intentioned, is lacking, and the plot often appears out of focus and disjointed, yet still extremely unsettling. The film’s conclusion, not to be discussed here, epitomizes that and is sure to ignite frustration in many viewers aside from this reviewer. Ultimately, the film is strongest when it comes to its star, and that’s exactly what its marketing has and will suggest.

Olsen conveys a certain depth to Martha that becomes apparent only gradually, as she begins to let more of herself show, both as she grows closer with the other cult members and as she opens up at home following her break from it. Her smile is warm but not infectious, and her laugh disarming but not charming. It’s a mesmerizing debut, and Olsen is sure to have great roles following this. John Hawkes plays a character even more despicable and terrifying than he did in “Winter’s Bone,” and he’s definitely the film’s most frightening figure. Sarah Paulson seems out of place as the perky Lucy, and I like Hugh Dancy better when he’s perfectly charming, which is not the case for Ted here. This film will be remembered as Olsen’s show, and that’s probably for the best.


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