What I’ve Been Missing (or Not), Volume 1: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I’m not 100% content with the way my “Best of 2011” list turned out. It’s respectable to a degree, but there were just so many titles I didn’t have a chance to see before the year’s end that I felt I’d be doing my self a disservice if I didn’t attempt to give what I’d missed out on a chance. That in mind, I’ll be posting a few short reviews of those deemed worthy of my time according to my closest cinephile peers.

Directed by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes

As one of the more buzzed about independent debuts of yesteryear and beyond, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is an exceedingly bleak character study, examining the psychological profile of a young woman, Martha, as she struggles to reassimilate herself into society following her extended stay with an abusive cult. The reasoning behind Martha’s decision to settle into this soon-to-be unhealthy environment is made rather clear early on, seeing as how her lack of guidance on account of an absentee father and deceased mother has caused her to act out in the way she’s chosen. Deftly avoiding convention while bouncing back and forth between Martha’s traumatic “rebirth” if you will on and around the cultists’ homestead and the moments focusing on her hopeful recovery, director Durkin sure knows what he’s doing as confident pacing and stellar editing techniques hold our attention at every turn.

Not once slipping into the realm of the melodramatic as key events slowly but surely unfold revealing just why Martha’s mental integrity has so obviously taken a sharp turn downward, Martha Marcy May Marlene couples the sequences in question with tonally compatible ones from an alternate timeline, expertly illustrating what our female lead’s endured throughout her less than desirable trials and tribulations. Durkin’s debut remains appropriately distressing at all the right turns, exuding the bits of depravity and subsequent brainwashing that often coincide with cultist ideology, showing us just how detrimental a toll Martha’s experiences have irreparably taken on her fragile psyche.

Despite the overtly graphic nature of the proceedings, everything remains appealingly subdued, allowing Elizabeth Olsen’s breakthrough performance to shine through whenever inevitable outbursts begin to permeate the production as her mind continually unravels. Again, it’s a relief to witness Durkin remain so steadfast in his intentions with the film’s deliberate pacing, projecting an air of dread and paranoia on Martha’s behalf so thick that we as viewers have no choice but to sympathize with her as she inadvertently pushes those trying to nurse her back to health away via innumerable psychotic episodes.

As a whole, Sean Durkin’s debut feature is one of raw power, remaining searing in its examination of a wayward young woman falling in with the wrong crowd (to put it lightly), alternately settling on the trauma experienced within her newfound circle of exceedingly abusive, disillusioned cultists and the estranged sister and brother-in-law that receive the brunt of her severe emotional and mental collapse. A brilliant performance from Olsen coupled with the efforts of Hawkes and the rest of the gang ensure that Martha Marcy May Marlene is as disturbing as it is a poignant exploration of such a helplessly damaged individual.

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