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Two years ago Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) disappeared with her ‘boyfriend’, leaving her upper-class family to worry and wonder about her whereabouts. Now she has mysteriously reappeared, and contacts her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her in to live with her and her fiancé Ted (Hugh Dancy). But Martha’s strange, paranoid behavior isn’t related to a bad breakup. She has fled an abusive, Manson-esque cult run by a charismatic and frightening man named Patrick (John Hawks), who renamed her Marcy May in a calculated effort to tear down her self identity.

 Martha Macy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene introduces the movie-watching world to a new talent in writer/director Sean Durkin, who up until this point had never written or directed a feature length release. This isn’t quite a Evil Dead, Badlands or Citizen Kane sized, instant classic debut, but like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs it gives us a nice taste of what we can expect in the future from a young talent. Martha Marcy May Marlene reveals a relatively unique filmic style and smart approach to relatively common subject matter. Durkin treats what could’ve been incredibly sensationalistic and lurid subject matter (it’s effectively a dramatic retelling of the Manson cult story) with a steady hand and cool head. At times his simple, exceedingly ‘indie’ treatment turns a bit stagnant, but generally the tone is achieved intelligently rather than stuffily. As a writer and director Durkin interacts with his audience without talking down to us. The pulp of the story is found largely between the lines and in what is left unsaid. Some viewers will consider this approach ‘boring’, and despite enjoying the film, I can’t claim it always works. The slow burn threatens to blowout throughout the film, but the ends mostly justify the means.

Visually the film is shot to look very rough, mixing the theatricality of the 2.35:1 frame and stylistic editing techniques, with objective, cinéma vérité camera work. Things never turn full-on horror show, but Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes approach a lot of the film in the same way Tobe Hooper approached The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Darren Aronofsky approached Pi and Requiem for a Dream. The editing processes don’t quite match those extremes, and more weight is placed on performance over technical work, but the comparisons are still valid. The back and forth editing and juxtaposition of Martha’s lifestyles threatens to turn heavy-handed, but as the story unravels it becomes clear that Durkin is using the structure to trick his audience into Martha’s headspace. My favourite example of this misdirection is when Durkin contrasts Martha’s sexual abuse via Patrick with footage of Ted trying to connect with her via boat ride. Later in the film it’s relatively clear that Ted isn’t making any advances, but at the time there’s no question he’s trying to seduce her. The subtle speeding up of the juxtapositions ratchets up almost unbearable tension as it reveals the depth of Martha’s psychological damage, most negative thoughts concerning the structure or tone are dissolved, and even the most clumsily melodramatic interactions and violent revelations tend to resonate as truthful (which is kind of ironic, since it’s entirely possible that Martha’s psyche is making up the entire story).

 Martha Macy May Marlene
It’s easy for me (and others) to compare Martha Marcy May Marlene to 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Outside of the more obvious cosmetic similarities, both films represent a sort of coming out for their writer/directors and lead actresses. Jennifer Lawrence had a small collection of not particularly noteworthy childhood rolls under her belt before blowing up post Winter’s Bone with major roles in X-Men: First Class and Lionsgate’s upcoming Hunger Games adaptation. Comparing Lawrence’s remarkable achievements with Elizabeth Olsen’s seem unfair given Olsen’s massive capacity for nepotism (she is, if you didn’t already know, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). But the reality is Olsen had a lot to overcome in her own way (I know I wasn’t expecting much from a sub-Olsen Twin), and Martha Marcy May Marlene actually is her first major film role, not to mention one she reportedly auditioned for a couple of times. Beyond all the drama that follows the Olsen name, this is a surprising and smart performance, free of histrionics, and breathtaking in its simplicity. Martha’s sexuality and vulnerability has to be palpable, yet Olsen doesn’t risk damsel in distress status by maintaining an understated strength and a dry sense of humour. Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone also have two brilliantly eerie John Hawks performances between them. These two characters have very little in common as far as their worldview, but both carry a frighteningly quiet aura and disturbing charm.

 Martha Macy May Marlene

Video


Martha Marcy May Marlene makes its Blu-ray debut in full 1080p video, cropped at the appropriate, theatrical release 2.35:1 framing. The entire film features a purposefully washed-out look, leaving most blacks as grey, and the edges of the frame frayed with light. This is a very ‘used’ look, and many viewers will likely assume that this transfer is somehow flawed, but I have been assured by the special features on this disc that this was the intended look. The film was apparently shot on good old fashion 35mm, and processed using good old fashion Technicolor, but it often appears as 16mm stock for much of the film, especially scenes featuring a lot of low light and dark hues. Grain levels are pretty thick, edges are often fuzzy, and the folds of the film itself can sometimes be seen in the deepest of night sequences. Despite the softer edges detail levels are higher than standard definition would allow, specifically in close-up textures and complex background make-up. The colour quality doesn’t really suffer to greatly despite the washed-out approach. The lush forest greens are especially vibrant, and the warmer hues blend with relative clarity. The film-based artefacts and impurities are legion, but I noticed very little in terms of digital compression artefacts aside from some banding during fades and a bit of low level noise in the richer reds.

Audio


The film’s lo-fi look is met with a lo-fi sound design, the majority of which is centered, subtle and obviously caught on set. This approach leads to a few problems with clarity, consistent volume levels (especially in vocal performances), and tinny effects, but overall creates the proper tone. The surround and stereo channels are most lively when nighttime crickets are chirping, storm clouds are brewing, and lapping lake water, but also have serve to punctuate some of the more frightening sequences, especially those involving gunshots, which fade gracefully into the rear channels. Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ music is effectively haunting, but rarely play a huge role, as it might in a more traditional thriller. The strings and keyboard sounds feature a decent, warm bass throb, and the more frantic mixes fill out the front channels quite well, with effective stereo movement. As the film progresses it becomes difficult to discern musical soundtrack from natural outside noise, creating an effective dissonance at the most frightening of times.

 Martha Macy May Marlene

Extras


The extras begin with Mary Last Seen (13:40, HD), the award winning short writer/director Sean Durkin made while scripting Martha Macy May Marlene. Here we see Patrick’s underling Watts (I believe that’s his name) driving a new recruit to the farm. This short doesn’t stand-alone too well, but works quite well to widen the scope of the film’s universe, and offers a dark clue into what might have happened to Martha. Next up is Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen (2:50, HD), a brief EPK style interview with the actress, The Story (3:40, HD), another EPK pieces with writer/director Sean Durkin and actors Olsen, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson, John Hawks, The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene (3:10, HD), featuring many of the same interviews, plus producers Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, A Conversation with the Filmmakers (3:20, HD) with Durkin, Mond and Campos, and The Psyche of a Cult (5:10, HD) with therapist/cult expert Rachel Bernstein. The extras are polished off with a music video and trailers.

 Martha Macy May Marlene

Overall


Martha Marcy May Marlene is a solid thriller that introduces two new cinematic talents – director Sean Durkin and lead actress Elizabeth Olsen. It’s also something I can imagine finding a new appreciation for on a second or third viewing. The film’s rough style makes for an ‘interesting’ look that doesn’t quite stand with the best Blu-ray transfer out there, but this is the intended effect, I assure you. The DTS-HD audio is low-key and natural, but clear when required, and the brief extras do fill in some of our more pressing behind the scenes questions. A commentary track would’ve been preferable.

 Martha Macy May Marlene

 Martha Macy May Marlene

 Martha Macy May Marlene

 Martha Macy May Marlene
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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