Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

The one thing I kept wondering the whole time was whether or not anybody got showers.

The film stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a girl who runs away from a cult only to be picked up by her sister and brother-in-law. As she tries to get used to being back in “normal” life she starts get flash-backs of the past, and it starts to eff with her, thus effing with everybody else around her. Let’s not also forget that this chick is as paranoid as a kid looking up porn in a public library.

Going into this film I knew to expect a good performance from an Olsen sister nobody knew about, and a lot of cult freakishness. Sadly, I still don’t know what to think of this film.

This is a real upsetting film that will probably make you more sad than actually on-the-edge-of-your-seat. Right from the opening scene you know you’re in for some real dark ish to be going down and having a cult there, makes it almost even more grim, but that is where my problem with this film is.

The film brings out a lot of points about how vulnerable people can be and how weak-minded most people are as well, but I think this was just a case where writer/director Sean Durkin just wanted me to feel like I should go snuggle in my warm, big, and cozy bed. He definitely did a good job at this but there could have been more to it. This premise can be used very effectively and can do a lot of creepy wonders if you have the right vision but this film kind of left me cold, as if I had no reason to really see this film other than to be utterly depressed out-of-my-mind.

The writing also felt pretty repetitive because it was the same constant thing where Marcy’s sister and her husband would just yell at her because she wouldn’t tell them anything, then Marcy would get paranoid about something, and then they would do the same thing over and over again. I think if they focused more on these characters rather than just the situation itself, the film could have really done some real damage to its viewers but it also felt like Durkin didn’t know what to do with this strong plot and just focused on a bunch of random silence and yelling. There could have been a whole lot of cooler things they could have done with this premise but when you just do the same thing over and over again without getting anywhere the first time around, then that’s where I have my problem.

Despite my problems though, I feel like Durkin did a great job behind the camera and really worked on keeping the grim material, grim. Everything is all dark and faded to bring out this glum look for the film even when Marcy does escape the cult and it gives us this sort of feeling like she will never escape. There were also a lot of cool shots where Durkin has one scene in the present, transition over to a scene in the past and it creates this dark mood that’s subtle. It’s a shame this guy didn’t know what to do with his script because he sure as hell knew how to film it.

Speaking of Elizabeth Olsen, she’s pretty much awesome here as Martha. This is her debut role and what she has to do for it is very hard since this character is so battered and tortured that Olsen is actually forced to basically bring out any type of commanding force to this very complex character. She owns that and I think she has a future in the movie-business, I just hope that not all of her films are like this really. John Hawkes is also pretty menacing and freaky as the cult leader, and Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are pretty good as Marcy’s sister and brother-in-law.

The ending is also another topic of conversation that many people were pissed about because it does just happen, without any real tension but just being ambiguous. I wasn’t as pissed with this ending considering this is what to expect now from all art-house flicks but it’s also a great ending that adds a lot to a film that doesn’t try to spell everything out for the audience. The whole ride to the ending was a bit sloppy but I can at least give some props to a film that you can find a lot of meaning out of. It wasn’t my cup of tea but hey, I’m just one dude.

Consensus: Martha Marcy May Marlene is a grim flick with some great acting from Olsen and Hawkes, but the film itself feels repetitive and a plot that really could have gone so many more places than it actually went and just stayed in this film.



  1. Heard some people rave about this but personally, this looks like dull city to me. Not sure I want to see this kind of minimalistic indies that end up being thoroughly boring.

  2. I’m really looking forward to this, though the reviews I’ve heard are either distinctly average or raving awesome. Don’t think it’ll be out here this year, so I’ll wait.

    • I can understand why some people would be falling over this sort of thing but I can’t get into it like others obviously could. Thanks Jaina! Hope you at least like it!

  3. I saw this Friday night at my city’s film festival. I actually enjoyed it a little more than you. But I can understand your thoughts. Olsen was very solid, I have chosen her in my fantasy film draft on AM. But the film belonged to Hawkes… He was scary, in a calm sort of way

  4. I agree with you for the most part. The lighting and muted colors definitely contributed to the grim mood. That and Hawkes’ and Olsen’s acting were the highlights of the film. It had potential but became repetitive and fell off in the end.

    • It should have been terrifying like I was already expecting, but instead just felt like it was a little creepy in some ways more than others. Thanks Auriel!

  5. Good review, Dan. You’re right about the repetition. Usually, you use repetitive scenes and events to show development. Each time the scene repeats, it changes in telling ways. I think that’s where Durkin’s inexperience shows through. It’s a stunningly good debut film, but he didn’t quite know how to develop the situation gradually. I’m not going to rank it as high as some people, but it’s undeniably worth talking about.

    • It’s worth some of the shake it’s been getting as of late but this is honestly a little bit messed-up when it comes to developing its characters. Thanks though Jeff!

      • By the way, I’ve been watching all the end of the year screeners, which is making me like Martha Etc. a little less by comparison. It’s a really good Indie, but there are several better movies this year. It might not even end up on my top ten.

  6. I have to disagree that the film was repetitive. To me,I liked the slow descent into madness and paranoia slowly taking over. I am still not sure if the cult had even come back for her or if it was just all in her head. I thought it was really good overall.

  7. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t like this film. I walked out of the theater when I saw it. There’s no reason for a film to be this bleak and unsettling. For what? We get the point. She was abused, Mentally and Physically. One of the more disturbing films I saw this year. Yes the performances were great and that’s what made it so gruesome. Still I look forward to these actors next roles since this did nothing for me.

  8. Well as you saw from my review I’m a huge supporter of the film, a Top 5 of the year thus far to me, but it’s interesting to see where it falters for people who weren’t as gripped by the slowburning sensation of paranoia and confusion as I was. Still, no matter the opinion of the film itself, good to see the kudos to Olsen and Hawkes are undeniable. Good review!

  9. Once again I agree with you completely Dan. I saw this at the Melbourne Film Festival a few months back and feel that my reaction was summed up by the fact that after it ended, no one applauded and that is almost an instinctual reaction by this point. Sure some of it was shock, but for the most part I would say that it was out of dissapointment.

    That said the way that the film managed to evoke paranoic reactions out of us, the audience, was rather clever. Knowing that we understand fore-shadowing and when to expect a scare meant that Durkin never actually had to give us one, he could jjust set up the signs and leave us in suspense, the very same state that Martha lived in.

    Overall though it was indeed very meh.

  10. I agree with you about Olsen being spectacular in this but the movie itself was so slow…it would meander along and then just seemingly come to a halt where nothing of consequence happened, it made my teeth hurt at times.
    I think there was a better film here if the focus had been on Martha/Marcy May entering the cult and then growing disillusioned instead of on her running away to her sister and then flashing back to glimpses of cult life.

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