Published Oct 27, 2011This review originally ran as part of Exclaim!'s 2011 Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
Being the more accessible variation on the recently ignored Happiness Runs, Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene still strikes upon some key ideological and psychological distinctions of a cult existence, touching on some of the associated nastiness while juxtaposing it against the similarly bizarre expectations of modern civilized culture.
It does this by jumping back and forth in time, starting with the titular Martha (Elizabeth Olsen — yes, those Olsens), later named Marcy May by cult-leader Patrick (John Hawkes), running away from a non-descript house, bruised and out of sorts. Calling her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), after a two-year absence, she inadvertently crashes her vacation with husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), bringing with her a variety of idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies in explanations.
Inexplicably swimming nude and crawling into bed with her sister and brother-in-law mid-coitus, Martha demonstrates some concerning behaviour, which is then contextualized by flashbacks to her cult life, where she was raped (with religious justification) and brainwashed into a hippie co-op lifestyle that occasionally divulged into a little petty theft and target practice.
Rather than exploit the more unseemly aspects, director Sean Durkin takes a quiet approach to the material, slowly building up the events and happenings with a deliberate, almost eerie pace. There's a care to balance ideologues by having Martha occasionally make some astute observations about Lucy and Ted's lifestyle, asking them why they need such a big house and engaging in a debate about defining oneself by career.
Even though the film touches upon the meek, idealistic nature of the cult victims, the actual psychology is quite superficial, relying specifically on disturbing moments and character conflicts to up the awe factor.
Resultantly, while disturbing, Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't quite pack the punch it aims for, having some hollowness where emotional resonance was intended. (Fox)