‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ leaves haunting impression

By on December 1, 2011

By Ben Nance–

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” refuses to release you from its tightening grip during its 120 minute running time. “What? No!” will more or less be your alarmed vocal reaction after viewing the unbearably tense conclusion of this fear-inducing, psychological film starring Mary Kate and sibling Ashley Elizabeth Olsen.

Not knowing initially what it was about, I was a bit confused when early press labeled the movie as a “cult film.” How can a film possibly obtain a cult following before it is even released? Doesn’t that take time? After having seen–or rather survived–the movie, I have to agree; this is unmistakably a cult film.

Despite its awkward title, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a remarkable accomplishment that is all at once exhilarating, frustrating and horrific in the way it unflinchingly examines the dangers of family ties. Many reviews have fully explained the film’s premise, but I will not here. The narrative unfolds in a fragmented, time-shifting and non-linear manner that carries more impact if you know very little going in.

All that needs to be said is this: The setting is rural upstate New York, and the central character is Martha, a deeply troubled youth who moves in with her estranged sister in order to escape the traumatic past two years of her life. The people she lived with during those two years have scarred her tremendously, particularly one deceptively friendly man played by the great John Hawkes.

Martha’s haunted memories, which reduce her to a state of emotional ruin in her sister’s summer home, are shown in frequent flashbacks. Sensitive viewers beware; these flashbacks contain some highly repulsive acts of human atrocity. Everything about the movie, from the claustrophobic framing of outdoor scenes to the unnerving dissonance of the string-heavy score, reeks of menace and doom.

The jarring transitions from past to present can make the movie feel like a disjointed nightmare at times, but that is the point, I think, as it forces the audience to undergo Martha’s blurred perception of reality. At one point she asks her sister, “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” This line alone sums up how the movie goes about things.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha with stirring gravitas. Being a relatively unknown actress who happens to share DNA with the Olsen Twins, she surprises in her ability to reach such subtle depths on screen. This is the same kind of raw, powerful breakout performance that deservedly made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence in last year’s “Winter’s Bone.” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is more than just a cult film. It is an experience unlike any other. Go live the experience at Baxter Avenue Theater before time runs out.

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Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

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