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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.20.11] review thriller drama

Year: 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Marina Antunes
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Expectation can often be a buzzkill especially when a film is hyped for months but 2011 has been a particularly great year for films living up to expectation. Tree of Life (review) didn't disappoint, and films like Another Earth (review), Drive (review) and the upcoming Melancholia (review) have been met by QE staffers with love and now there's another to add to the list.

A breakout hit at Sundance, Martha Marcy May Marlene has wowed crowds at every festival its played. Praise for writer/director Sean Durkin and newcomer Elizabeth Olsen has been positively unanimous and we were more than a little curious to see what the fuss was all about.

Olsen stars as Martha, an impressionable young woman who finds herself drawn into life on a farm. At first things are great: she shares everything with the other women and helps around the farm and in return, they take care of her. It's clear she craves the sense of family that the communal living provides but as she becomes more comfortable, the stakes get higher and we see the reality of the life Martha, now dubbed Marcy May by Patrick, the group leader, has fallen into and it's not all laughter and love.

Martha eventually escapes. Lost, alone and scared, she calls her sister Lucy who picks her up and takes her home. Lucy is happy to see Martha and she feels responsible for not being there when she needed support and so she sets off to make things right between them but it's quickly apparent that something is seriously wrong with Martha and as the pair try to salvage their relationship, Martha falls farther into paranoia. She thinks Patrick has sent a group to track her down and the longer she stays away, the worse the paranoia gets to the point where she can't function and her erratic behaviour starts to weigh heavy on Lucy's relationship with her husband Ted.

It's a straight forward tale but Durkin's unfolding of the story is far from commonplace. Martha's present is intercut with memories of her time at the farm and as the memories come more frequently, they also become progressively darker. Rape, abuse, brainwashing, murder…as Martha thinks back to the events of the past two years, she also becomes less rational and her initial dislike for her sister's way of life shifts into a kind of hatred. Yet she realizes that Lucy is her only escape from Patrick's reach and reluctantly, she agrees to be taken care of.

Elizabeth Olsen shines as the troubled young woman and her collapse is a marvel of emotions; she's at once fierce and fragile. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are great as Martha's supportive but confused family and John Hawkes once again shines as cult leader Patrick, a man who rules with an iron fist but who never gets physically violent. Hawkes has a great intensity that comes through in his portrayal even if we only see Patrick in glimpses.

It's wonderful to see how Durking builds this story to reveal only the necessary bits of information and though what little we know about the characters is carefully parsed out through the film's running time, there's never a feeling of emotional disconnect. Martha Marcy May Marlene is very much a thriller but a pensive one in the vain of Michael Haneke's work in that the suspense is psychological and builds slowly.

Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't offer any answers and the film's final scene brilliantly leaves the story open ended. Durkin's parsing of information is so carefully placed that at first, I couldn't figure out who the Marlene in the title referred to and combined with the closing scene, I was left wondering if Martha's paranoia was warranted or if it was all in her head. The film screams for additonal viewings and I look forward to re-watching it with an eye for hints that Martha is actually being followed. Martha Marcy May Marlene is well deserving of the praise and Durkin and Olsen are both talents to watch.

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