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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Sean Durkin
Length 102 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 5

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Trailer.

A farmhouse, in Norman Rockwell country. It’s the crack of dawn. A young woman is awake. She sneaks out of the house. She crosses a road and into the trees. Someone has seen her go; someone will follow her. She will sit in a diner and a young man will try and persuade her back, cajoling, perhaps threatening, slyly bullying, but she manages to resist.

Following hard on the heels of Margin Call, in Martha Marcy May Marlene, we have another meticulously put together and starkly intelligent thriller from a first-time writer/director, here Sean Durkin. The titular character is the abundantly named Martha, played with utter conviction by Elizabeth Olsen. The place she has run from, it is gradually revealed, is a kind of cult, led by Patrick (John Hawkes). She has been in the cult for a couple of years and we see her seduction and later disenchantment with the community interlaced throughout the film. Durkin is skilful in showing the attractions that the cult offers, a sense of belonging and love, just as Olsen is convincing in portraying a character desperately in need of those benefits.

The world Martha escapes to is a privileged if sterile haven provided by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her English husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). They are enjoying a retreat to a lake house and, despite past disagreements, Lucy is keen to redeem herself and fulfill her role as a protecting older sister. Her attempts will be stymied by Martha’s otherworldly oddness, her obviously damaged vulnerability and Ted’s increasing impatience. It is part of the brave brilliance of the film that within the sanctuary of Lucy’s environment we can easily glimpse the problems that caused Martha to seek solace in the cult. Martha is someone who having once failed to escape is denied now the right to escape anywhere. She is the embodiment of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles: “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed / In one self place, for where we are is hell, / And where hell is must we ever be.”

Durkin manages to keep us guessing throughout the film as to just how much of Martha's predicament is the product of understandable paranoia and how much is actually real. In contrast to the schlock festivals of torture porn, this film shows the mind, the subject, falling to pieces and to some extent being torn apart. It is a bleak picture which offers little in terms of consolation or comfort, but I would argue - and there will be arguments - it is all the better for that.

This review was published on February 11, 2012.