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Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Amanda Yap

Fri Feb 10 2012

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

DIRECTOR Sean Durkin’s haunting debut film Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman who escapes from an abusive cult and tries in vain to regain a normal life.

The film begins by showing Martha living on a farm, where an evening meal is taking place. Men eat first, the women eating only once they are finished – absolutely no words are uttered. No time is wasted as the film soon shows the female protagonist fleeing into the woods, being chased by cult members yelling for her to come back.

Martha’s escape seems to be successful, but a mix of anxiety and exhaustion remains etched on her face as she makes a phone call from a payphone to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). It is clear that Martha has been unseen and unheard from for a while, as Lucy frantically asks where Martha is so she can get her.

Lucy takes Martha to her spacious house by the lakeside, and says she can stay with her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). It is clear that Martha is traumatised, though Lucy and Ted, having been fed the story that she has merely been with an ex-boyfriend, remain oblivious to her past. Due to this, the couple fail to understand Martha’s increasingly strange and paranoid behaviour, viewing it only as bizarre and problematic.

Conversely, audience members know why Martha believes swimming stark naked and crawling into the same bed that Lucy and Ted are having sex in is normal. The film regularly switches to flashbacks of Martha’s strange life in the cult, and her dealings with its leader Patrick (John Hawkes).


Despite his rugged exterior, Patrick oozes charm, and upon being introduced to him by a friend, Martha is taken in by the attention Patrick pays her, and his nicknaming her “Marcy May”. She accepts his invitation to join the family, even after he says she must be a part of things if she wants to live on the farm – a warning, in retrospect. What eschews is a portrait of a girl brainwashed to accept the supposed blessings of a life of submission and assault. Particularly disturbing is a later scene that shows Martha passing on this same indoctrination to a young newcomer who is, like Martha, abused by Patrick from the very start.

As the film progresses and more insight into Martha’s bizarre past is revealed, a little light is shed upon why she stayed in the misogynistic cult for so long. The reprehensible yet charming Patrick serenades her with an eerie song and tells her that she is his “favourite” and that he “won’t lose [her]”.

It is probably the latter statement that feeds into Martha’s constant paranoia that she is still being watched by the leader and his followers even after she is supposedly safe with her sister, hours away from the farm.

Viewers who are unfamiliar with the “cult thriller” genre may find it all extremely odd and confusing, but there is no doubt that this will end up being a very memorable film. Martha’s inability to differ between reality and illusion, memories and dreams, is what will make the film riveting, and even scary, for any audience member.

It is worth noting that apart from John Hawkes’ brilliant performance as Patrick, Elizabeth Olsen’s debut performance as Martha is an extremely pleasant surprise, and one that has been recognised by a long list of awards. The younger sister and spitting image of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth demonstrates some valuable acting chops that far surpasses those of her siblings. Her talent has seen her lined up for a number of new titles on 2012, including the yet-to-be-released Silent House. She is a rising star who will inevitably make a noticeable splash in the years to come.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is now showing in cinemas across Melbourne.