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Saturday, March 3, 2012

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE -- DVD review by porfle

A compelling and quietly disturbing mood piece, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) slowly leads us through the surreal mental terrain of a cult survivor trying to make the transition back into the real world.  But as involving as it is, our patient participation in this very deliberately-paced story ultimately goes unrewarded.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from the rural farm "family" with its hooks lodged deep into her psyche, seeking shelter with an older sister she hasn't seen since dropping out years earlier.  Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Ted (Hugh Dancy) are a conservative yuppie couple spending some time in their rented vacation home in Connecticut; both they and their relatively conservative lifestyle are now alien and confusing compared to the cult's unorthodox ways.

Lucy's genuine concern for her sister is thwarted by her inability to understand or deal with the new Martha, who thoughtlessly strips naked to swim off their boat dock and generally regards them as though she were a visitor from another planet.  It eventually dawns on the two how disturbed Martha is when, childlike, she climbs into bed with them while they're having sex.

The story slips seamlessly between this and Martha's less-inhibited cult life in order to show the sharp contrasts between the two.  The transitions are almost dreamlike, with Martha often seemingly unable to establish herself in a particular time and place.  The conflict between her fear of and deep-seated dependence on the "family" and its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), leaves her in a constant state of confusion and paranoia. 

We see how, through a lengthy period of brainwashing and indoctrination, Martha--renamed "Marcy May" by Patrick, who similarly co-opts the identities of each female inductee--is made to feel part of a loving community while surrendering her body and soul to them.  The cult scenes are merely oppressive and creepy at first, but become gradually more unsettling as a number of Manson-like elements are revealed to us and Patrick's veneer of benign persuasion grows darker and more malevolent. 

Strangely, there's no mention of any kind of religious basis for the cult or Patrick having any messianic properties--they simply follow him because he's such a wise and "beautiful" person.  John Hawkes, far removed here from his nebbishy liquor store clerk in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, underplays the role nicely, smoothly transitioning from passive-aggressive to simply aggressive in his emotional and sexual manipulation of Martha and the other girls. 

As Martha's relationship with Lucy and Ted reaches a disastrous impasse, so we see her cult life turn nightmarish in a series of harrowing flashbacks.  Her growing fear that they know where she is and are coming for her has us eagerly anticipating what's to come as the film seems to be building toward some kind of thriller-style ending.  The fact that this doesn't happen is bad enough; what's worse is that MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE doesn't really have any kind of ending at all.  Just when our interest is at its peak, it's over.  There might as well be a card reading "Reel Missing" before the end credits. 

Performances are good but not flashy.  Dialogue is succinctly functional, with no scintillating dramatic exchanges for their own sake, while writer-director Sean Durkin's deft but lean style reflects the same economy used in his short films such as "Mary Last Seen."  Music is minimal as well--as Martha drifts from one suffocating mental state to the next it often sounds as though she's underwater. 

The DVD from 20-Century Fox Home Entertainment is in 2.40:1 widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby and French and Spanish 2.0 surround sound.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Included as a DVD extra is Sean Durkin's short film "Mary Last Seen", the story of a girl's induction into a cult which pretty much serves as a prelude to the feature itself.  Extras listed for the Blu-Ray version are:

--Mary Last Seen
--Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen
--The Story
--The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene
--A Conversation with Filmmakers
--The Psyche of a Cult
--"Marcy's Song" Music Video by John Hawkes
--Theatrical Trailer

It's okay for an abrupt, open ending to leave the viewer full of questions, as long as it doesn't also leave us feeling cheated.  This was definitely one of those cases where I wanted to see what happens next, not just ponder it myself.  And while it's meant to make us think, all that the final moment of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE had me thinking was, "Is that it?"

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