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Martha Marcy May Marlene(2011)
Martha is a young woman rapidly unraveling amidst her attempt to reclaim a normal life after fleeing from a cult and its charismatic leader. Seeking help from her estranged older sister Lucy and brother-in-law, Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. When her memories trigger a chilling paranoia that her former cult could still be pursuing her, the line between Martha's reality and delusion begins to blur.
For more about Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray release, see Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on February 21, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia
Director: Sean Durkin
» See full cast & crew
Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray Review
A cult film in the truest sense of the word.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 21, 2012
Since the subject matter is so fertile for drama, I have no idea why there aren't more narrative, non-documentary films about cults. Of course, I'm not talking about the supernatural satanic-panic type overrepresented in horror movies like Rosemary's Baby or the recent House of the Devil. Rather, I mean your garden variety small-time religious cult, with an uber-charismatic leader a la Jim Jones, some bizarre beliefs, and an insular, emotionally manipulative power structure that lures members in and keeps them from ever leaving. Writer/director Sean Durkin recognizes the cinematic possibilities here, and in his debut feature, the alliterative Martha Marcy May Marlene, he exploits the identity-erasing aspects of cult behavior to create a dark psychological thriller about paranoia, control, and dissociative disorder. The film came seemingly out of nowhere to become one of the most talked-about indie dramas of the year, and for good reason. It's gorgeously shot and deliberately paced, with a sense of creeping dread that snakes suffocatingly around you and slowly squeezes. It certainly helps that the film features two terrific performances, the first from all-star character actor John Hawkes and the second from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, who--if her turn here is any indication--is set to rapidly overshadow her elder twin siblings, Ashley and Mary-Kate. This is one of those rare, career-making roles that catapults a young actor into the A-list spotlight.
Olsen plays Martha, a beautiful but feral-looking twentysomething who lives on a quasi-utopian-ish farming compound somewhere in the Catskills. In a few short opening shots, director Sean Durkin encapsulates what life is like in this agrarian cult. We see the men fixing up the farm buildings while the women--dressed in prairie gowns or otherwise simple clothing--collectively tend to the babies and gardening and dinner preparations. As the ladies wait patiently in the kitchen for their turn, the men eat in the dining room, where the grizzled, gaunt-cheeked Patrick (Hawkes) sits at the head of the table, surveying his disciples.
This is clearly a man's world, and for reasons we won't find out until later, Martha wants out. She sneaks away early one morning, runs through the forest into town, and after a tense encounter with a cult member who's been sent to find her, tearfully phones her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson)-- whom she hasn't seen in two years--and arranges to be picked up. Lucy takes her to the sleekly modern lakeside vacation home she shares with her big-time architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and tries to nurse her back to normalcy. Martha, however, is mum on where she's been and why she disappeared in the first place. She's a wonderfully enigmatic character; Durkin wisely avoids unnecessary exposition and gives us only bits and pieces of her troubled backstory, hinting at the death of her parents and her strained relationship with Lucy, while keeping everything else a mystery. This is the sort of film that runs on pure, unleaded ambiguity, pulling us along with the promise that we'll eventually find out more.
And we do find out more, eventually--the film takes on an elliptical structure that moves fluidly between the past and the present--but not much more, and not necessarily much about the aspects of the story you'd initially assume would get pushed to the forefront. For instance, Durkin doesn't get into the specifics of what the cult believes, religion-wise. He treats it more like an "every-cult," and he's far more interested in the broader emotional mechanics of these kinds of groups--how they becomes surrogate families for their disenfranchised members, who are willing to give up their old personalities for a sense of belonging.
In this case, Patrick is brilliant at probing the vulnerabilities of acolytes while making them feel welcomed and important. He tells Martha that she looks "more like a Marcy May," and in this act of naming he both asserts himself as a father figure and offers her a new identity. (Conversely, "Marlene" is the name all of the cult's women are supposed to use when answering the phone, which--along with the fact that they share clothing from a common wardrobe--shows how they've been basically collectivized, owned as a singular by the men in the group.) Watching Patrick ply his control over the women is terrifying, especially in how easily they've been brainwashed into accepting sexual abuse. After Martha has been drugged and raped by Patrick for the first time, one of the other women actually convinces her that she's just had a "very special night." Later, it's even more chilling when Martha herself takes on this "mentor" role, preparing another young recruit to be raped.
As the story glides between Martha's years in the cult and her present with her sister, there's a certain "compare and contrast" parallelism at work that's sometimes a bit too obvious for its own good. Martha just doesn't fit in with Lucy and Ted--she skinny-dips to her sister's disgust, she challenges Ted on his ideas of success, she interrupts their lovemaking by walking into their bedroom unannounced, silently curling up on the side of the bed--and every one of these instances has a too-tidy corollary in her time with the cult, where naked swimming was a-okay, success was measured in anti- materialistic simplicity, and group sexuality was the norm. The overly clever narrative symmetry even extends to the editing; there are scenes where Martha will, say, jump into the water during the present and then emerge from a different body of water in the past. It feels a little forced at times--a little first-time filmmakerish--but Durkin makes up for it by sustaining a tone of ominousness that grows louder as an increasingly paranoid Martha begins losing her ability to discern between dream, memory, and reality. The tension culminates in a cut-to-black, oh my god what happens next ending that will inevitably infuriate some--who will see it as a cop-out--while leaving others with a lingering and satisfying uncertainty.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is self-assured debut, and I can't wait to see what Durkin does next. He's got a great sense of style--collaborator Jodi Lee Lipes' cinematography is lush and moody--and he has the confidence to use longer takes, with slow, deliberate dolly movements. He's not the only one with a future in the business. Elizabeth Olsen is simply phenomenal; as Martha she's alternately broken and arrogant, lucid and confused, and she sells the role with a genuineness that--let's face it--you just don't expect when you hear her last name. (I look forward to the day when she's the best-known of the Olsen brood, and I suspect it isn't too far off.) My sole disappointment with film? Not nearly enough John Hawkes--an actor who has yet to really get the attention he deserves. He's brilliant here, completely buyable as a seductively charismatic leader who earns his cult of personality through sheer manipulation.
Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray, Video Quality
Shot on 35mm and given a soft, dreamy color toning in post-production, Martha Marcy May Marlene has a visual aesthetic that's both realistic and impressionistic, modern and lost in time. The key to the look is the fact that, in most scenes, black levels have been intentionally raised--to a dark gray--while highlights are dampened and given a creamy quality. The color palette is also low-key, focusing on rich neutrals rather than vivid splashes of color. This low-contrast style is evocative and more reminiscent of artful contemporary photography than slick, punchy, big studio cinematography. Some "reference" quality purists may balk at the flattened blacks and dimmed color, but this is the perfect look for a film primarily about the lack of distinction between dream, memory, and reality. The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer we get here seems entirely faithful to the filmmakers' intentions. Film grain is natural--untouched by DNR--and there are no signs of edge enhancement or other unnecessary tweaks. Likewise, the encode is free from compression artifacts, banding, blocking, and aliasing. Finally, in terms of clarity, this won't be the sharpest high definition image you'll see this year, but there's plenty of fine detail in the areas where you normally notice it. I think the film looks great.
Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The sound design of the film's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track matches the tone of the visuals wonderfully--it's quiet, dreamy, and hushed, but isn't coy about going nightmarish when need be. While this isn't an especially immersive or room-rattling mix, it does conjure up a pervasively unsettling mood--a feeling of paranoia that comes out of the stillness. In the rear channels you'll occasionally hear rural outdoorsy ambience--slow wind, lapping water, the buzz of crickets--and rare but well-used directional effects. Music is used minimally; there are long stretches of the film where we don't hear any at all, but key scenes are punctuated by stabbing, see-sawing violins and clattering percussion. It works well, and both the score and effects have a great sense of clarity and dynamic breadth. There are a few instances where vocals are intentionally obscured, but otherwise, dialogue is always clean and balanced and easy to understand. The disc also includes French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs, along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles, which appear in clear, readable white lettering.
Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a confident debut for writer/director Sean Durkin and one of 2011's best films, a dark, eerie drama about manipulation, control, and a paranoia. I appreciate that Durkin didn't feel the need to over-explain; he keeps the origins and beliefs of the cult mysterious and leaves the ambiguous ending satisfyingly open to interpretation. The performances are wonderful as well, especially from newcomer Elizabeth Olson and long-time character actor John Hawkes, who projects so much charisma that, by the end of the film, you're convinced he'd make a damn good real-life cult leader. Highly recommended!
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• Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray - December 20, 2011
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