Movie Review - Martha Marcy May Marlene

Probably because of the presence of John Hawkes and the fact that it's centered on a young female character, this movie is being called this year's Winter's Bone (2010). Writer-director Sean Durkin certainly sets up a similar character-study situation and a peek into a group of people or area that's not often put on the big screen. Unlike Debra Granik though, Durkin teases the audience with a potential narrative thrust but never follows through with it.

Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, positions herself as the next Jennifer Lawrence. She stars as Martha, a member of a commune of about a dozen people who live on a farm possibly in the New York area. The commune is run by Patrick, played by Hawkes. He talks a good game about self-sufficiency and family and what's good. He even sings a good game, but in reality he's dangerous and deadly.

Martha falls in love with Patrick and plays his game, but when blood spills and the illusion is brutally shattered, she runs away. Martha goes and stays with her older sister Lucy and her husband Ted in their summer home in Connecticut. Martha bickers with Lucy like any normal sister would, but she never talks about the two years she was incommunicado while on that commune farm.

Because of which, she clashes with her sister and brother-in-law, played by Hugh Dancy. Often times, this occurs when behavior that was acceptable on the farm becomes inappropriate in suburban Connecticut. Eventually, it comes to a head when Martha and Ted argue over materialistic values. The commune apparently eschews those values. However, no explanation is given as to why Martha went to the commune in the first place, so we get no clue really of what Martha truly values.

Martha professes this identity that clearly is just a refrain of the insanity that Patrick has sung in her ear. We're not really sure what's in this girl's head. Durkin does a good job of seamlessly cutting back-and-forth between Martha at the commune and Martha at her sister's place. Of course, she's only Martha with her sister. At the commune, Patrick refers to her as Marcy May.

It's not as if there's any difference between Martha and Marcy May. There is no discernible distinction. There is no identity crisis as might be implied. Martha simply becomes scared and stops talking about her time on the commune. Durkin gives us long one-shots with few edits, few closeups or coverage in general. It focuses the audience's attention on the actress but is indicative of Durkin not providing much except broad strokes of this character.

What is particularly frustrating is the ending. Aside from the ending to Seven Days in Utopia, this is probably the most frustrating ending to any movie this year. Durkin hints that the commune might be coming after Martha. Instead of an answer to whether Martha will ever confront the commune again, we get nothing but Durkin's hint.

It begs the question of what the purpose was of depicting the commune at all. We're led to believe that the commune is a threat, and we're led to believe that it's not only a threat to its surrounding world but a threat to Martha herself. It's a threat to her emotionally and psychologically, but the suggestion is that it's also a threat physically.

Durkin seems to stress the emotional and psychological, and the events in the third act of this so-called narrative would stress the physical threat as well, but Durkin never follows through. He just abruptly stops the film. He stops the film before we can ever see the commune hurt Martha physically or carryout that threat. It just seems that if Durkin wasn't going to go there, then why depict the commune at all?

The emotional and psychological threats and resulting effect on Martha could have been achieved without it. With it, Durkin takes us down a road with no destination. His setup has no pay off.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs.


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