Martha Marcy May Marelene is the ultimate Sundance movie (not an insult). It offers a breakout performance by a new performer (here Elizabeth Olsen) familiar character actor faces from the supporting cast (Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes), and a strong directorial tone and style from first timer Sean Durkin. It’s also a small movie – but not in a bad way – that tells of how a woman survived the cult she was in, and how she tries to adjust to the outside world. Our review of Martha Marcy May Marlene on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Olsen stars as Martha, nicknamed Marcy May by her cult leader, who begins the movie by leaving the house where her fellow drop-outs live. She’s chased down, and when she finally hits town is confronted by another member. They all figure she’ll come back, so when she calls her sister (Paulson), she’s reluctant to get a ride, but sis Lucy shows up and takes Martha to her country house. She lives there with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha is out of sorts, sleeps a lot, pecks at her food, and behaves in odd ways.
This is intercut with her story getting accepted into the fold of the cult, which is headed up by Patrick (Hawkes). There she learns how to fit into their society and accepts that Patrick gets to have his way with her. When it happens for the first time Martha is awoken by Patrick sodomizing her, but afterwards one of her fellow brethren talks about how beautiful it must have been. Martha falls into this lie to be a part of the family.
The films elides the backstory before she joins the cult, but all evidence suggests Martha was a lost girl, and we see her join the group, and accept their practices – even helping drug the next girl to join before Patrick has his way with her. The group is tight, and most seem to be recovering from their previous lives. At Lucy’s place, Martha is at a lost for how to behave, and rejects the idea that her sister is preparing to become a mother. But Martha’s paranoia increases as the film reveals what sent her away from her cult family.
More films should begin in media res, and one of the best things about MMMM is how it drops you into the world, often intercutting the present with Martha’s cult past. These cuts are the film at its best. It helps gives the film the sense of dissociation, where you are unsure if the conversation or action is taking place in one timeline or the other. Olsen may overdo her primitive nature when back in civilization (I was slightly distracted by her methods of eating – forks don’t take long to figure out), but Olsen gives a powerful performance by fully committing to the character. It’s easy (and perhaps necessary) to mention that she’s the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley, but this Olsen comes as a blank slate, and so though there may be some family resemblance, this is a role that she kills in. It’s a star-making turn.
Though it’s not a problem, the biggest knock against MMMM is that it’s a small film. For those with no sense of cults or how they exist in modern times, the film gives you enough to understand why Hawkes’s Patrick might have sway over this group of people, but it doesn’t get that far into the psychology of wanting to belong. Durkin’s work here is so on point, the material is handled so well, and the performances are so sharp that when it comes to its ending, that it doesn’t register as a great moment is only because it’s not a profound movie. But as a film that unsettles, as a psychological horror movie, it is very effective.
Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. The film was shot cheap, so the picture quality isn’t excellent, but it seems to be the limitations of the material, not the master. Extras include “Mary Last Seen” (14 min.) with an introduction by Durkin (1 min.). It was his short film that was his research for the movie, and shows more of the seduction of cults. It’s followed by five mostly useless featurettes: “Spotlight on Elizabeth Olson” (3 min.), “The Story” (4 min.), “The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene” (3 min.) and “A Conversation With the Filmmakers” (3 min.) seem to have been cut for television, and offer brief glimpses of the creative team interspersed with film clips The best supplement is “The Psyche of a Cult” (5 min.) which gets a cult expert to talk about them. There’s also music video and the film’s theatrical trailer.