Unlike most horror movies that seem to be released these days, Martha Marcy May Marlene offers a more tense and sometimes terrifying viewing experience. It is all down to the constant feeling of unease and lack of safety that the movie builds from the start. Add to this the fact that the audience never really knows what is happening or understands the full picture. This is a movie that lets you decide the story and past-events. A film that gives you just enough of the puzzle to help you come to your own conclusions.
Not that the movie is cryptic or difficult to follow. It is really a simple story of a girl trying to move past her experiences at the hand of a cult. This places most of the film’s heavy-lifting on the shoulders of Elizabeth Olson. Luckily, she is more than able to carry the movie and demonstrates fantastic acting talent, in scenes that are very horrific but also much more quiet but no less tense, calmer moments too.
The second stand-out role from the film is the cult leader, Patrick, played by John Hawkes. He is everything you’d expect a cult leader to be. Enticing and influential, inspirational and calming but also terrifying and scary at the flick of a switch. It adds to the constant feeling of dread that carries over the movie but also means you can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Even when Olson’s character has returned “home” to her sister’s house for safety, there is always an uneasy feeling. It is not the perfect home life but isn’t written in such a way that Martha is constantly feeling abused and neglected. The real success of the film is the constant switching and parallels between a calmer, more normal home-life and the one at the cult. The film uses flash-backs to tell the tale effectively but these aren’t telegraphed and it can sometimes leave you feeling like you’re playing catch-up, confused with events; mirroring the feelings of Olson’s character.
It is an intelligent way to write and direct a film. Some of the shots are creative and beautiful, from the underwater sequences to the way a crack in the door frames Olson’s listening Martha. It gives the film a dream-like quality which then runs through to the ambiguous ending. There will be many who would like much more closure on the events and also want some the deliberate gaps filling in. It feels slightly cheating to not have that definitive answer, particularly as the last scene ends and the credits roll but you can also understand why it almost needs to be so incomplete and open to interpretation.
Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tense, gripping drama which effectively fills every scene with dread and unease without ever being a horror. Elizabeth Olson carries the film well and her scenes with the often terrifying John Hawkes are some of the best. There are obvious, deliberate gaps in the tale and the ambiguous nature of the ending won’t be for everyone but you won’t forget the movie long after the credits have rolled.
Rating – 4
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)