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NYFF 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene Movie Review

Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Director Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson

Sure it’s fun to see fugitives make daring escapes, characters have overemotional breakdowns and others dodge a barrage of bullets, but if you’re looking for something along those lines that’s far more realistic, writer-director Sean Durkin does a notable job taking the standard elements of your average psychological thriller, compressing them and letting Elizabeth Olsen bring the remainder to life. The result is Martha Marcy May Marlene and it’s a feature film that packs far more tension and emotion than any shoot ’em up, mind game action flick out there.

Olsen is Martha. Well, she’s Martha to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). To Patrick (John Hawkes) and the others living on his seemingly quaint farm, she’s Marcy May. With her parents long gone, Martha takes to Patrick like a fatherly figure and he takes her to his home, a house packed to the brim with young adults who share clothing, maintain their land and are on the brink of being able to function as a self-sufficient community. While this does sounds like a noble venture, the farmhouse most certainly has a dark side, which includes, but is not limited to, sexual abuse, theft and violence.

We first meet Martha on her way out. After her grand escape, with no other option, she calls Lucy who drives to upstate New York to pick her up and bring Martha back to the vacation home she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Sounds like a dream come true after being trapped in such a dismal situation, but the memories of Patrick’s place continue to haunt Martha, so much so that it’s impossible to adapt to her sister’s warm and loving lifestyle.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is Elizabeth Olsen, both in terms of the character and the film itself. She’s in just about every frame of this feature and is the piece that holds the entire narrative together; something that’s quite essential as the film frequently abandons its modern storyline for lengthy flashbacks. Olsen has an innate on-screen appeal. The film opens with a silent overview of the farmland, but once Martha becomes the centerpiece of the action, there’s an instant connection. Even during an early diner scene during which Martha says near to nothing, we get an incredible amount of information about her through her mannerisms alone.

From there you’re encouraged to keep a keen eye on Martha’s behavior, some of which is naively amusing, but at other moments, her current state is particularly alarming. Olsen manages to make her seem like such a normal person, both during the moments with Lucy and during the flashbacks, but in both time periods, there are elegant cracks in that composure that don’t just suggest Martha’s lost it, rather all that once made her good is being plagued by an abusive past and that’s what makes her story all the more tragic. Hope is there, it just seems so unattainable.

Writer-director Sean Durkin takes the “psychological thriller” classification very literally. Rather than a tacky murder mystery where unsuspecting characters emerge guns ablazing, here, the adventure feels real and is very much in Martha’s head. We’re not just watching our hero run around trying to solve the problem; we’re right alongside her during this recovery attempt, allowing us to feel what she feels, which is quite powerful.

And it’s no wonder. The “thriller” portions of this story are wonderfully, well, thrilling, because the film isn’t drowning in endless high-tension moments. Durkin chooses to raise the bar wisely, giving us just a handful of moments that’ll have you, for lack of better terms, on the edge of your seat. However, that doesn’t mean the rest of the film drags in the least. In fact, this type of approach makes you genuinely concerned for what could be lurking around the corner at all times and, whether it involves a gun or perhaps a mere silent moment for Martha, it all has weight.

On the technical side, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes does the film a great deal of justice. Courtesy of smart and well-planned camerawork, every transition from present time to flashback is absolutely seamless. There are no cheesy wipes or cuts to black, rather wonderfully aesthetic transitions that beautifully pass the baton to the set and costume design to seal the deal.

A psychological thriller with a hint of coming-of-age, Martha Marcy May Marlene offers a notably honest and downright troubling look into a fascinating person’s life. The film isn’t something to be enjoyed per se, rather experienced, and thanks to Olsen’s natural performance, that experience is profound.

Technical: A-

Acting: A-

Story: B+

Overall: A-

By Perri Nemiroff

Martha Marcy May Marlene Poster

Martha Marcy May Marlene Poster

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Film producer and director best known for her work in movies such as FaceTime, Trevor, and The Professor. She has worked as an online movie blogger and reporter for sites such as,, Shockya, and MTV's Movies Blog.

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