I saw the new drama film Martha Marcy May Marlene this weekend. I wasn’t expecting all that much, really, because I barely knew what it was about. Now that I do know what it’s about, I’m almost happy with the result. But almost is a key word.
Martha is a troubled young woman who ends up living in a hippie commune-type situation, that ends up being a cult that’s a near replica of the Manson Family, complete with a Charlie-like figure in John Hawkes’ psychologically dominating character. This troubling footage is juxtaposed (rather brilliantly) with up-to-date scenes of Martha crashing at her sister’s place, despite being riddled with emotional and psychological problems from living with the cult. The editing was pretty fantastic in this film, going between the two time periods. It’s a very well structured movie, with Martha living in one time period, then it can be as simple as walking through a room and “magically” we are back in flashback mode. The whole movie is a pretty well put together puzzle as you wonder why Martha is so messed up, or why she ran away from the commune in the first scene of the film (I’d have left because I’d have to eat only organic vegetables every day).
Martha is actually a pretty intriguing character. Played by Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary Kate & Ashley), she wanders from scene to scene, jumping from a playfully joyful vagabond attitude from early time lines, to a psychotic wreck in the later time lines. She’s strong at times, weak at others, even rebelling against her sister’s husband defending the weird ideals of the cult she just bailed on, as if she is permanently tainted with their crooked logic. But making her even more interesting is scenes when she shows her true personality, a personality that was probably existent before the head games. And it made me start to wonder about what made her even meet up with the troubled clan to begin with. But that never gets explored. In fact, as deep as I found the Martha character, she never truly gets explored. And even more disappointing, Martha is the only character that gets any developmental treatment. John Hawkes and his crew are basically Manson replicas, and I suppose it works if I just think of them that way. But his craziness or motives are never explored. He’s just crazy like Charlie. Fear him, I guess.
Good acting all around, by Hawkes in his side role, but especially by Elizabeth Olsen. She’s got skills and natural beauty, much more than I’ve ever seen from her sisters. She reminded me of a better, more attractive version of Maggie Gyllenhaal.
As I was watching the film, I was pleasantly enjoying the mysteriously pieced together narrative. I think that was the strongest asset. I’m all for unconventional storytelling if it’s pulled off correctly. And I also enjoyed the dark tone of the film as well. It’s often times beautiful, and sometimes very creepy. The problem is, I just wished I enjoyed it more. I even liked the ambiguous ending, but when it was all over, I it just felt like the shell of a great story. Like it wasn’t complete. I wanted it to be explored so much more. I wanted all the characters to have greater depth to them. It just didn’t happen for me. I really wanted to like this movie, I really did. But I can’t help but feel like Martha Marcy May Marlene had just a few too many degrees of failed potential for me to consider it something great. A really, really wonderful effort, though.
7.5 out of 10