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MOVIE REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Featuring interview with star Elizabeth Olsen

  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
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Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen, the two artistic forces behind Sundance Film Festival award winner Martha Marcy May Marlene, worked closely together to create a striking character study defined by the subtleties of psychological horror. As harrowing as it is rigorous, the film fuses together its titular character’s hypnotic memories and flashbacks as she attempts to transcend the trauma of living inside a cult by returning to live with her wealthy sister (Sarah Paulson).

“We wanted to make it as human and specific as possible,” Olsen said during an interview with SanDiego.com. “I figured out ways for me to relate to relate to her as a character and then Sean would share in great detail these stories he heard during his research for the film. It was about trying to get behind her character as truly as possible.”

It’s the complexity of Olsen’s performance that drives Martha Marcy May Marlene, from it’s menacing beginning of silence to one of the most horrific endings in recent memory. Martha is a lost soul in every sense of the word, searching for an emotional connection to cling onto. As a result of this desperation, her world becomes marked by emotional and spatial voids. Olsen discussed this dynamic further when she said,

“There’s something clear that her sister and family never provided, something that’s missing, something she needed as a young woman. The first time she ever received all those things was from this group of people.” Many of the early sequences document Martha’s time on a remote farm run by the group’s charming leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). We see the seduction of his words, the possibility he provides by playing on Martha’s weaknesses, and the results are devastating.

Framing Martha’s conflicted mental state is Durkin’s incredibly restrained cinematic aesthetic, a combination of slow moving zooms, static camera shots, and hypnotic tones that creates an unflinching atmosphere of dread.  “We wanted a visual look that appeared warn, something that resembled to look of the farm,” Durkin said when asked about the film’s distinct approach to Martha’ story. “We used whatever camera move would enhance a specific moment, and not create restrictions.

But you have to have continuity, and that continuity became the pace of the film.” It’s fitting then that time seems to slow down in Martha Marcy May Marlene, as if the character’s memory is caught in a vice from the impact of her past experiences. This feel of entrapment is further exemplified by the film’s sound design, which creates a level of omniscience by referencing various tonal registers. “My sound designer was making tones while we were shooting the film. These tones became the basis for the music, the goal being that the sound was always creeping up on you. It’s unclear where the music cues end and the sound design begins.”

Considering its shoestring budget and quick shooting schedule, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s level of aesthetic and thematic continuity is astounding. There’s never a moment where the audience is not fully immersed in Martha’s fracturing perspective, no matter if it’s during her time on the farm or at her sister’s posh lake house. Not only is Martha Marcy May Marlene one of the best Horror films in recent years, it’s an impressive collaboration between many burgeoning talents, including cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes.

By merging the mundane aspects of everyday life with the power of psychological torture, Durkin and Olsen have created a crippling process of despair protracted by isolation and judgment. Martha’s screams are almost always internal, unheard to the world until its too late.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest and Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.