AccessReel Reviews – Martha Marcy May Marlene

AccessReel Reviews – Martha Marcy May Marlene

Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is an unusual movie experience; the term ‘experience’ is usually a pretentiously vague tag for a movie, but somehow it seems to fit this film. The story isn’t a tightly structured tale of cause and effect. Events unfold in a way that seems natural and mostly we feel we are observing the out-of-kilter existence of a troubled soul.

Most of what happens to Marcy May, seems to happen ‘to’ her rather than being the result of her own actions. This is not to characterize her as the victim of events as much as someone who chooses to go with the flow. She is a young woman trying to discover who she is and unfortunately becomes part of a cult whose leader (Hawkes) is more than willing to be the man who shapes her identity.

First time feature director Sean Durkin has fashioned a very finely judged piece of cinema; he avoids sensationalism, predictable scenes and obvious answers. In the beginning the cult seems like the Arcadian Ideal; people in harmony with the land and living only on the results of their labours. However, the darker side of the life they have made is revealed to us slowly, scene by scene. When Marcy May leaves the cult and finds her original family, we are momentarily relieved, but we are aware that whatever secret she is keeping, must be terrible indeed.

These two story strands are intertwined and both fill the audience with a sense of disquiet and foreboding. Durkin’s film examines the nature of family. Why Marcy May left in the first place is a question that hangs in the air. When we see her interacting with her older sister (Paulson) we form some theories. Yet the script is too subtle to leave us with easy answers. The audience is never allowed to judge anyone for too long before a new event sheds a different light on these characters.

Elizabeth Olsen’s powerful performance has been justly praised by critics and awarded by numerous film festivals. She never hits a showy or phony note. You will know someone like Marcy May – and this is part of the film’s brilliance. She is lost and damaged, yet once was a ‘normal’ young woman. Exactly what happens on her journey is for us to decide; the film is a series of dot points that we connect with our darker imaginings.

Stuart Durkin’s debut is remarkably assured and well worth watching for those who like psychological studies that do not resolve neatly. This film will not simply fade from your mind, it will leave traces behind. 

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is currently screening in Australia. It runs for 102 minutes. I rated it 4/5.