Thursday, April 05, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) **½

R, 102 min.
Director/Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Brady Corbett, Maria Dizzia, Christopher Abbott, Julia Garner

Yesterday, I reviewed Elizabeth Olsen’s latest theatrical release, “Silent House”. Today, I’ll look at the movie that placed her name on so many people’s lips last fall.

Many thought the Olsen twins’ little sister deserved an Oscar nomination for her work in the independent drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. One of the reasons she may not have gotten enough votes is because people had such a hard time remembering the exact name of the title. That’s a lot of ‘M’ names, and there are so many others that are very similar.

The movie tells the story of a young woman, played by Olsen, who has recently left a cultist commune. Her name is Martha. At the commune everyone called her Marcy May, but to outsiders of the commune she was known as Marlene. The renaming of the women in the commune served two purposes. It stripped them of their former identities, leaving them to be redefined and dependant on the leader of the commune. It also made it harder for them to be found by family members. The leader, played enigmatically and with just enough charm by John Hawkes, plays off the name change as a flattering flirtation, but the rules of the commune are very strict.

The movie takes place mostly after Martha has left, feeling that the leader deceived her about the true purpose of his philosophies.  She’s taken refuge with her sister and her husband. The cult has damaged her psyche quite severely. Many of her actions appear insane to her sister and brother-in-law. Mostly, Martha fears the cultists will come for her.

The filmmakers effectively execute what I have described; and Olsen’s performance deserves the recognition it got upon the theatrical release of the movie. But, her post cult ordeal isn’t really all that surprising. Everything she goes through makes sense. What I don’t understand is how she got involved in the cult in the first place. We see her introduction to the commune through flashbacks. We witness her role on the farm on which they make their lives, but we never get the sales pitch. Just what does this place have to offer these people? What hole are these lost souls who get swept up in the cult trying to fill in their lives? The most we ever get from the leader is a song he writes for Marcy May and performs in a barn for the entire group. This serenade seems hardly sufficient for her to subject herself to the life she lives there.

There’s nothing wrong with what there is in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, but I wanted to know more. Martha’s ordeal deserved a better explanation than it got.

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