The mind can be a fragile thing, all too vulnerable to the manipulations of others. Preying on the needs and desires of the lost and disillusioned, evil individuals can worm their way into innocent lives, gradually breaking down a person's sense of worth and identity. Even if one can escape from such persecution, this psychological exploitation can have long lasting consequences, permanently scarring the psyche. In 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' that's exactly what happens. By exploring the disturbing world of cult society, director Sean Durkin creates an uneasy, tense drama, loosely weaved together in emotional fragments. Led by a very strong performance from star Elizabeth Olsen, the film mostly succeeds, but some elements of the fractured plot may leave viewers unsatisfied.
After fleeing from a cult, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) reconnects with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and struggles to readjust to normal life. The trauma of her past continues to haunt her, however, sparking tension within the family. As her odd behavior and paranoia increases, Martha begins to suspect that members from the cult are following her, leading to fits of rage and fear. Unable to distinguish between reality and delusion, her very sanity hangs in the balance.
Mirroring the character's own splintered psyche, the narrative itself is told in a loose, fragmented manner. The movie constantly weaves back and forth between two parallel stories, detailing Martha's time with her sister after her escape, and brief peeks into her life within the cult. These numerous flashbacks flow naturally into the proceedings, with smooth, often dreamy transitions blurring the line between past and present, memory and reality. Related actions, images and sounds will serve as cinematic glue, bridging the gap between both time periods, juxtaposing the two scenarios against each other.
We really only see bits and pieces of each storyline, painting a partial, incomplete picture of Martha's experiences. Each new scene builds upon the last, gradually revealing a darker truth as Martha's peaceful life in the cult takes increasingly disturbing turns. Bits of dialogue and small actions start to build characters and situations in small bursts, creating a disjointed but still very naturalistic mosaic of scenarios and complex relationships. This all helps to engender a creepy, uneasy atmosphere that slowly exposes a violent, abusive world of psychological manipulation and control.
Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic as Martha, turning in a completely believable and multifaceted performance. The character is caught between two worlds and is often depicted in a daze, unsure how to feel. Olsen handles all of these complicated emotions expertly, demonstrating great range as Martha erratically wobbles from one extreme to another. Her tense outbursts lend an air of unpredictability and discomfort, but it’s the quieter, subtle moments that prove even more powerful.
In one scene, the character overhears a conversation between Lucy and her fiancé where they complain about Martha's unsteady behavior. As she listens in, Olsen almost stares directly at the camera with an unsettling glance, before finally turning away in distress. With only a sliver of her face barely visible in the shot, we see the hint of a tiny tear start to roll down her cheek. It’s a delicate, understated moment, wonderfully composed and staged by the director, that's made all the more potent thanks to Olsen's natural, heartbreaking performance. Special note should also go to John Hawkes, who does a great job as the dangerous cult leader, Patrick. Hawkes ends up imbuing the role with just the right amount of charisma and menace, crafting a realistic and frightening threat.
While the movie's emphasis on mood, acting, smaller moments and incomplete events is certainly refreshing, this approach won't be for everyone. In fact, the loose narrative structure and abrupt, open-ended conclusion will likely leave many feeling unsatisfied. On that same note, even though I personally admire the style, the plot ultimately feels a little thin. While I understand that the hazy structure is deliberate, some aspects of the story could benefit from being a bit more fleshed out. As it stands, the film's emotional impact is slightly diminished by a lack of development.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene' ultimately leaves it up to the audience to fill in the blanks and draw their own conclusions. Writer/director Sean Durkin only provides us with bits and pieces, partially painting the picture of one girl's fractured mind. The cult mentality is artfully examined in a psychologically potent manner, and Elizabeth Olsen turns in a striking performance. Still, while I respect the stylistic intent, some elements of the plot just end up feeling underexplored, lessening the film's lasting appeal. Regardless, this is an intelligently crafted, well acted film that serves as a strong debut for its director.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox presents 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' on a Region A BD-50 disc housed in a keepcase. Some skippable trailers, logos and warnings play upon start up before transitioning to a standard menu.
The movie is encoded with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Though seemingly authentic, the film's intentional visual style is a little underwhelming.
The print is in great shape with a light layer of grain visible throughout. Clarity is good, but some scenes look a bit soft, lacking fine detail. Colors are nicely saturated but not overly vibrant, keeping with the film's naturalistic yet slightly dreamlike aesthetic. Whites are nice and bright leading to a good sense of contrast in well lit scenes. Unfortunately, black levels leave a lot to be desired. While likely intentional on the part of the filmmakers, blacks have been noticeably elevated, sometimes to a great degree, resulting in a washed out, milky grey appearance. This visual choice fits well enough with the content but really doesn't lead to a very pleasing image.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene' features an interesting visual style, and this transfer seems to offer a solid representation of the director's intent. With that said, intentional or not, I found the elevated black levels to be distracting, resulting in a mostly unimpressive picture.
The film is provided with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track along with Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Subtitle options include English SDH and Spanish. Quiet and subtle, the mix does a decent job of enhancing the film's creepy atmosphere.
Though speech is often delivered in whispers and hushed tones, dialogue is thankfully clean and easy to understand throughout. Various nature effects fill the soundscape with a delicate but effective layer of ambiance. Since the majority of the film is quiet, simple sounds end up taking on great significance. Little noises in the background, like creaking doors and flowing water, all come through with great fidelity, bolstering the movie's uneasy mood. Surround use is minimal, however, with most design choices relegated to the front soundstage. Dynamic range proves to be nice and wide, with several tense moments and dramatic music cues in the last act bringing some welcomed bursts of excitement.
The mix does a nice job of complementing the narrative's restrained sense of gloom and paranoia. A bit more rear activity would have lent some added immersion, but as it stands, this is a perfectly fine track.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene' is a creepy, tense psychological drama that features a great performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Its fragmented narrative offers a refreshing experience, but the plot does feel a little thin and potentially unsatisfying. The video transfer appears to be authentic, but some of the stylistic choices lead to an underwhelming image. Audio is subtle but effective, enhancing the creepy mood. The included short film is a nice addition, but the rest of the supplements are too brief to really offer much substance. Still, the film is well crafted and this disc is definitely worth a look.