‘Martha’ film uniquely depicts cult life

By Acacia DiCiaccio

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a picturesque independent film about a girl who escapes life in a cult. The protagonist, Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, finds herself caught between remembering and trying to forget a world in which she found herself free from materialistic values.

Courtesy Tabercil/Flickr

Martha returns home to her sister, played by Sarah Paulson (“Down with Love”), to discover that she has gotten married and now lives in luxury with her husband (Hugh Dancy). The distance between the siblings appears to only grow greater the longer that Martha lives under her sister’s care, refusing to speak about what happened in her absence and her increasing involvement in odd behavior. The strange relationships between all of the characters in the film foil each other seamlessly.

John Hawkes (“The Perfect Storm”) does a spot-on performance as the creepy but almost endearing society leader. He accurately depicts a man with deep ideals that can at times sound convincing to the young and vulnerable, such as when he tells Martha that “death is pure love” through a series of transitive ideas. Hawkes can be compared to a less manic Charles Manson, with the themes tending to be the same. What makes this movie memorable, however, is the new perspective that viewers gain from Hawkes’ performance. While many people have seen films or documentaries about cults, perhaps none followed an escaped member now attempting to cope with the emotional repercussions.

One of the things that make the film unique is its lack of score. Writer and director Sean Durkin chose to heighten the emotionality of scenes through the repetition of one or more noises. Though there were no whining violins or sounding trumpets, the often unpleasant sounds created the perfect atmosphere for tragedy and fear. This is Durkin’s first time directing a feature length film, however no one would realize that when seeing “Martha.”

Durkin also employs the use of close camera shots in order to literally bring the viewers closer to his characters. He utilizes a muted color palate for much of the film, contrasted with the bright yellow and blue depictions of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. With sneaky scene transitions, the line between memory and the present becomes blurred. Durkin pulls out all of the stops for his 102-minute feature.

Olsen’s acting shines through the emotional epic that is “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” so well in fact that one will barely remember that her claim to fame is being the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Yet in her first major role, her talent for acting already surpasses that of her older sisters, who are known for their bubblegum self-titled adventures.

Though the film may not be qualified as “satisfying” to viewers, its momentum never leaves them wondering when the movie will be over. Throughout the entire length of the movie audience members will find themselves begging for more information, yet they never truly receive it.

This is not a film viewers should go out and see if they are seeking a light-hearted film. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” successfully illustrates the psychological torture that comes with being in and escaping from the cult life. As is common with many independent films, “Martha” does not wrap up nicely but instead leaves the audience with more questions than answers. For those who loathe ambiguous endings, this film should be skipped. However, what must be appreciated in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is not so much the somewhat mysterious storyline, but the beautiful cinematography, the acting and the range of emotions that Durkin extracts from the moviegoers.

Acacia DiCiaccio can be reached at [email protected]