Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Someone forgot to tell me this was a horror film, though at least it’s the kind of horror film (like Peacock) I can appreciate. And the way the horror quietly builds and subtly sneaks up on you is one of the major strengths of this altogether absorbing film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is about a troubled young woman who gets involved in a cult. We know at the outset that Martha wants to get out of the cult, because she runs away and calls her sister and goes to live with her. In flashbacks, we then find out what precipitated Martha’s desperate departure.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha perfectly, giving us real insight into her character. This is Olsen’s first major film, reminding me of Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (maybe because the whole film reminded me of Winter’s Bone - it also stars John Hawkes and also takes place in backwoods America). All of the acting is very good, though Hawkes as the cult’s leader is an odd casting choice. There may be something charismatic about him, but I did not feel he should have been able to command the respect and devotion that he is able to command.

An odd thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene is the way it treats the practices of the cult. Sometimes they are apparently viewed as liberating and as positively challenging the materialism and consumerism of our society (among other things). But maybe that’s just my radical viewing of the film. Maybe the cult’s practices and teaching are all supposed to be viewed as brainwashing and obviously wrong-headed (even evil). I hope not, because if that’s true, then the film gets one star. But if it’s not true, then the way Martha processes and shares her new anti-capitalist insights comes across as ambiguous at best. It doesn’t help that many of the cult’s practices are indeed obviously wrong-headed.

Despite that flaw, this truly frightening and thought-provoking film is worthy of ***+. My mug is up.

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