Movie review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (+trailer)

By Peter Calder

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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

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