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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Martha Marcy May Marlene | Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy | Review

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  3_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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Martha Marcy May Marlene | Elizabeth Olsen | John Hawkes | Sarah Paulson | Hugh Dancy | Review

One very troubled girl, three incarnations.  What remains the same for the titular character is the troubling instability, the bad judgment and the paranoia.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is naïve and gullible when it suits the plot for shock value; at other times she’s conniving, self assured, slick and intelligent.  The result is a frustrating mish-mash of emotion that leaves the viewer as uncertain as the young twenty-something anti-heroine.

Martha’s been victimized, brainwashed even, yet retains an annoying and unbelievable naïveté about the world she came from, and where she spent much more time than her two years in a rugged farming cult (whose extra-curriculars include break-ins, burglaries and worse).

After escaping from the cult, Martha is reunited with straight-arrow sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s British husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy) who embody all of the materialistic creature comforts that Martha has been taught to disdain.

From the first day, it seems, Martha says and does all the wrong things and alienates the pair.  At first the viewer is sucked into Martha’s world with its frequent flashbacks to a very different existence on the communal farm cult led by charismatic (Manson-like) leader Patrick (John Hawkes).  It’s Patrick who christens her Marcy May.

The non-linear tale has Martha and Marcy May show us their current and former psyches, as if explaining why Martha is so “off.”  We find out through one of the flashbacks that Marlene is the name that a female cult member uses to identify herself by phone.  Martha both uses the name (as Marcy May) and receives it (as Martha) when she is convinced that the cult is after her.

Is the cult after her?  Is she delusional?  Paranoid?  Don’t expect the film to help you out; it simply throws the current Martha and the former Marcy May into situations that attempt to explain her unstable behavior.  That in itself would be acceptable if there were believable scenarios to follow.  It is simply not enough to chalk everything up to mental illness simply because it allows for the ability to foist erratic or provocative behavior on the viewer.

For example, Martha sees nothing wrong with visiting (and joining) Lucy and Ted while they are making love.  Lucy is uptight and proper, thoroughly shocked at Martha’s behavior.  Martha’s known Lucy her whole life – wouldn’t Martha know better?  Wouldn’t Martha also realize the inappropriateness of skinny dipping in front of Ted?  Even though the cult embraced, even demanded, nudity, casual sex, and Patrick’s “initiation” of new females, Martha was a member for two years, not two decades.

Those kinds of missteps are annoying and serve to repel rather than attract the viewer into Martha’s plight.

Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the famous twins) carries the flawed film with an impressive performance.  The tale falters in its capricious depiction of a lost soul, propelled forth for maximum visual and behavioral impact without plausible explanation.  Blame it on the mental illness; end of story.

John Hawkes is effective as Patrick, using his voice rather than his appearance to persuade followers.  Sarah Paulson’s rational Lucy is a stark contrast to Martha’s loose canon existence.

Writer/director T. Sean Durkin’s feature debut shows promise and he veers dangerously close to creating a profound tale of alternate (and misplaced) reality.  He only errs in making his main character act in a way that suits him, not her.

The abrupt ending will feel like someone has removed your plate of food before you’ve finished with it.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is certainly a mouthful that needs more digestion than is offered.

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