Movie review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (+trailer)

By Peter Calder

Add a comment
Elizabeth Olsen (left) with Sarah Paulson. Photo / Supplied
Elizabeth Olsen (left) with Sarah Paulson. Photo / Supplied

Durkin, a relative youngster who won the directing award at Sundance for his first feature, showcases a remarkable talent in this story of a young woman's attempt to break free from the clutches of a cult.

The film abounds in boldly framed shots and eerily handsome visual touches and it weaves together its two time-frames with considerable skill.

But it never really gets to grips with the story it's trying to tell, and the ambiguous ending, though doubtless intended as a stylistic flourish, comes across more as a failure of nerve.

As the film opens, the title character, originally named Martha (Olsen), is seen fleeing at dawn from a commune in the Catskill mountains and ending up at the home of her uptight but kind-hearted sister Lucy (Paulson) and her bristly British architect husband Ted (Dancy).

Through repeated flashbacks, we see the past she is struggling to come to terms with: the back-to-nature community is led by a self-appointed guru Patrick (Hawkes), who runs things along almost medievally sexist lines - the women eat after the men and Patrick sexually assaults newcomer women in a ritual fashion that is regarded as some sort of benediction.

Setting aside the fact that the storyline feels rather last-century (Jane Campion's unsatisfying Holy Smoke in 1999 showed how hard it was to carry off then), Patrick is a fatally charmless guru: his gaunt unshaven features and dirty singlet suggest a Dustbowl farmer down on his luck, and he lacks so much as a trace of the charisma that might explain his success.

Certainly the banal Marcy's Song he pens and sings wouldn't make the gala-night programme at a backwoods folk festival.

Olsen, younger sister of the famous twins, making her feature debut, has as much presence as she needs and no more, but the film looks a lot better than it is.

Stars: 3/5
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Director: Sean Durkin
Running time: 102 mins
Rating: R16 (violence, sexual violence and offensive language)
Verdict: Out of focus


- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 26 May 2017 16:55:30 Processing Time: 377ms