(No longer in theaters)
Oct 21, 2011
The Sundance and New York Film Festival raves for Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene have me as mystified as its ending, a cliffhanger aborted in mid-hang that signals, “This is no mere genre film.” Obviously—no mere genre film would get away with a cop-out like that. Until then, the movie is draggy but compelling. The orphaned 20-ish protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), is caught between two families, two unsafe worlds: a Manson-like hippie cult overseen by a satanic satyr (John Hawkes), and the Connecticut lake house in which her older sister, Lucy (Sara Paulson), often resides with her wealthy, short-tempered husband (Hugh Dancy). Martha, who’d disappeared from Lucy’s life, keeps mum about where she was and what she did, but her memories—in the form of flashbacks—begin to come fast.
Durkin has a gift for using every inch of the screen, to both evoke Martha’s temporal dislocation and create a sense of menace. And even if Olsen is getting so much attention because she’s kin to Mary-Kate and Ashley, her performance earns it. She has a wide lollipop face that holds the camera and a pregnant stillness: You can feel the roiling within. She and Paulson have an affecting rapport, protective and resentful in shifting proportions. But you never see what drew Martha to that cult (where her name is changed to “Marcy May”), much less what kept her there for so long. And the non-ending turns the whole movie into an elaborate tease, too creepy to dismiss, too shallow to justify its “ambiguities.”