[Screen It]


(2011) (Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson) (R)

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Drama: A young woman begins to lose touch with reality after fleeing a cult and going to live with her sister and new brother-in-law at their lakeside home.
It's been two years since a young woman, Martha (ELIZABETH OLSEN), was drawn into a cult located on a farm in the Catskills and led by the charismatic and much older Patrick (JOHN HAWKES). Shown the ropes by the likes of other members such as Katie (MARIA DIZZIA) and Zoe (LOUISA KRAUSE) -- and then later doing the same herself for newbie Sarah (JULIA GARNER) -- Martha eventually fit in, including being one of Patrick's many lovers, while also having to wait for him and the other males, including Watts (BRADY CORBET) and Max (CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT), to eat before the women were allowed to.

But with things getting more harry with the passage of time, Martha eventually flees the cult and goes to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (SARAH PAULSON), and new brother-in-law, Ted (HUGH DANCY) at their lakefront, second home. They don't know of her cult involvement, but he isn't pleased with the arrangement, although Lucy feels guilty for not being around to support her younger sister years earlier.

Martha says she's fine, but memories of her experience within the cult continue to haunt her to the point that they start to blend in with reality and she fears that those in the cult will be coming to take her back.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I don't personally know anyone who is or has been in a cult, but I heard a tale from a friend about how deeply entrenched such organizations and their leaders can get into one's head. At a gathering away from the cult, a family intervention was attempted -- including with a hired and trained deprogrammer -- but once the person realized what was happening, a phone call was made and a cult rescue pickup was executed. That was years ago -- there's probably now an app for that.

The takeaway lesson from that tale is such entities are more powerful than many imagine. Sure, we've all heard the story of Charles Manson and what his followers did in his name and under his control, but for every murderous organization, there are scores of others that remain under the radar, nabbing the weak, vulnerable and/or unhappy into their "family." And in most cases, using the military's tactics, those people are broken down and stripped of their individuality in order to become family or team members who will blindly follow the leader.

Such is the case in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a dramatic thriller with a tongue-tripping title, enough "fun" and effective directorial flourishes for several films, and a breakthrough performance by Elizabeth Olsen. The lesser known sibling of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth plays a cult member who decides to flee the flock located somewhere in the Catskills. Placing a phone call to her estranged sibling (Sarah Paulson) who she hasn't seen in more than two years, Martha goes to live with her and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their lakefront home in Connecticut.

What follows is Martha trying to assimilate back into regular everyday life. The only problem, though, is it appears the cult is none too pleased with her going AWOL, wants her back, and will hunt her down to insure her return. As helmed by writer/director Sean Durkin (who makes his feature film debut), this is a tale of finding one's identity, the cult of personality and more. But somewhat like the tactics employed by cult leaders, it's also a mind game designed to keep audiences off balance to the point that they're not really sure what's real and what's not.

Durkin gets the ball rolling by hopping back and forth between the present and the past, showing the protagonist's time in the cult (complete with all of the subtle and not-so-subtle indoctrination methods) and then trying to deal with all of that after the fact. As Martha becomes increasingly concerned with and then paranoid about the cult closing in on her, the filmmaker employs the brilliant directorial tactic of seamlessly segueing between the periods to the point that we're never sure what temporal period we're in during the transitions. I don't want to give away any specific examples so as to avoid spoiling those moments, but rest assured that they're handled with expertise.

The same can be said about Olsen's embodiment of her character. We never for a moment doubt that she's the kind of damaged person who could both be drawn into the trappings of such a cult and then become so troubled by it that she'd flee, only to be tormented by what transpires, be that in reality or just in her head. At one point, she asks her sister, "Do you ever get that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or something you dreamed?"

Paulson is solid as the concerned sibling (although Dancy is somewhat one-note as the spouse who becomes increasingly fed up with her presence), but it's John Hawkes as the Manson type cult leader who steals every scene in which he appears. Not strikingly handsome or overtly menacing in the performance, the actor nails the part and presence of such a cult figure by making him subtly but also strangely magnetic on the screen.

The somewhat abrupt ending will likely divide audiences among those who appreciate the artistic merits of leaving things nebulous and hanging, while others will feel gypped that things aren't resolved in a tidy conclusion. I fall into the former group as the way Durkin wraps things up (or doesn't) fits in perfectly with making the viewer feel like the protagonist, confused about what's reality and what's imagined, dreamed or has been manipulated into one's mind.

While I'm still unclear how the film would hold up under a second viewing, it's an accomplished effort the first time around, with Durkin, Hawkes and especially Olsen possibly up for end of the year award consideration. An effective cinematic mind game, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" rates a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed August 23, 2011 / Posted October 28, 2011

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