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Martha Marcy May Marlene

This movie, with the impossible-to-remember-title, is certainly one of the best of 2011.   It’s the story of a young woman who escapes from a backwoods cult after suffering serious psychological and emotional abuse.  She was never imprisoned by the cult, except perhaps in her mind.  She takes refuge with her yuppie sister and her husband at their vacation home, and they have plenty of issues of their own, ranging from stored up resentment against her for simply disappearing years before, to a nearly cultish devotion to style, status, and success.  The parallels “Martha” draws between backwoods, brainwashed radicals and the more mainstream, widely accepted cult of success are penetrating and illuminating.

Elizabeth Olsen plays the titular protagonist.  I was shocked to discover that she’s the little sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen; she’s certainly embarked on a different career path.  She looks more like a young Maggie Gyllenhaal than a young teen idol.  She might turn out to be the one in the family with actual talent; her performance here is nuanced, restrained, and never false for a moment.  Opposite her (at times, not often enough) as the cult leader  is John Hawkes, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.  His unconventional looks complement a deep gravity and screen presence that can’t be denied; here is a man who is capable of brainwashing and manipulating the multitudes.  I suppose, to an extent, what makes him an effective cult leader is also what makes him a fascinating actor. His mere presence is captivating.

Director Sean Durkin handles his duties like he’s in charge of a horror film, which is sometimes effective, and sometimes confusing.  The soundtrack maintains that same low, ominous hum that works so effectively in the “Paranormal Activity” films to suffuse everyday scenes with a sense of dread.  But, as with many films lately, I found myself wishing for more classical camerawork.  Shots are too often filled with ears, boobs, and chins.  What’s wrong with framing a face?  Especially in a movie where all the action is happening behind that face.

Also like a lot of recent movies, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” ends suddenly, and with no resolution.  The last thirty minutes drag a bit, after a tense beginning, and then it just stops. I don’t know why.  This is a fantastic film, certainly one of the best of the year.  I only wish it had gone on a little longer, and brought itself to a more satisfying conclusion.


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