Sean Durkin makes his directorial debut with Martha Marcy May Marlene, an incredibly slow film that must be endured, not viewed. Surviving MMMM isn’t an easy task, but if you do somehow manage to make it out on the other side you’ll find that the whole experience was a giant waste of time. Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes are the only things that were worth the viewing, but even their drowsy performances don’t earn the film a pass. It’s amateurishly directed and poorly written. View with caution.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a troubled soul searching for something. She takes her search to an abusive cult, joining without question or regret. She’s taken in by the leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) and surrounded with love and purpose by the others. Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out in present day with flashbacks to previous disturbing memories of Martha’s experiences on the farm. Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) take Martha in while paranoia increases.
The troubled craziness that Martha is experiencing is conveyed with skill by Elizabeth Olsen. Martha is simply an innocent, vulnerable and lost soul looking for direction and when she runs into Patrick things get worse. Olsen homes in on a very particular set of emotions that help display how confused and mentally disturbed Martha is. Her performance is sad and almost unsettling at times, but it never passes into the Oscar territory. She makes the film a little more bearable, but she doesn’t capture it completely.
John Hawkes on the other hand destroys his role as Patrick. Hawkes is all about physical acting. His most powerful movements come from delicate things like his eyes and general body tone and MMMM is no exception. Patrick is a cold and creepy guy that somehow comes across as gentle and caring. He’s manipulative and abusive without a doubt, but it’s how Hawkes chooses to display these emotions that make Patrick such a frightening character. He doesn’t have to beat or rape anyone if he doesn’t want to; he simply stares at them long and hard to get the point across. Hawkes has no problem doing what is required for the role, but it ultimately feels wasted since the rest of the film doesn’t offer much of anything else.
Hawke and Olsen make the film a true struggle. On one had you have two great performances that really help the movie and on the other hand you have a tiring film that does absolutely nothing with its stars. You almost can’t help but to feel angry because director Sean Durkin wastes these two excellent performances.
The camera work is also a big plus for the film. Sean Durkin uses haunting, overly long shots to establish the dreadful tone. The characters are subtle, taking their sweet time to develop, which plays off the long shots perfectly. The film feels more like a chore to sit through then anything, but the mood is unmistakable. Scene transitioning is also a breeze, free-flowing from past memory to current time without any sort of jump cut. It helps the viewer understand that state of confusion that Martha is constantly living in. Her life has recently become one big blur, with past and present smudging together and Durkin has no problem getting us to believe or understand that.
MMMM‘s biggest problem is the lack of an emotional connection with the protagonist, Elizabeth Olsen‘s character. The film dives right into her problems, touching up on her past and present simultaneously. You never truly feel an emotion towards her character, you simply watch as she loses herself to this cult until she eventually leaves and becomes even more lost, but in the comfort of her sister’s home. You spend a majority of the running time waiting for something big to happen, but nothing ever does. It keeps building and building until the very end, where it simply stops.
Don’t get me wrong here. I do enjoy films that like to calmly ease their way into a situation. Hell, I loved Steven Soderbergh‘s 4 hour biopic Che and I enjoy most of Terrence Malick‘s work, which some consider to be chore to watch. I’ll sit through pretty much anything as long as there is an end result. If a film wants to take it’s whole running time to build something up slowly then I’m fine with that as long as we get something worth the build up at the end, but if your film moves at such a slow pace, spending most of the screen time staring at characters while they float in the water or lay on the floor and then just ends without any sort of closure then you’ve lost me.
At least with a film like Real Steel you could see the giant missteps they took. You could see how the film could have been easily corrected had a more skilled director been in charge, but with MMMM everything lies in the grey area. There really is no clear cut direction to go in to make a film that isn’t a deliberate time waster. From start to finish absolutely nothing gets accomplished and I don’t think that’s a directing problem, but it is a writing problem. Sean Durkin wore both hats, which means MMMM was troubled from beginning to end.
It’s got the making of an interesting film, but it never truly becomes interesting. It has brief moments of promise, specifically towards the beginning of the film when everything slowly comes to formation, but the middle of the film drags and the ending of the film acts as the final nail in the coffin. Had two other stars been cast in the leading roles then MMMM would have had no redeeming traits. It would have been nothing more than a film student’s school project. Sure, it was filmed with an understanding of how to work a camera properly, but that’s about it.
Martha Marcy May Marlene will test your patience until the very end. It starts out hopeful, with a couple of truly dark scenes that are made all the more uncomfortable by John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, but it quickly descends into a sluggish state that it never manages to pull itself out from. Sean Durkin shows skills behind the lens with his effective long, gloomy shots of nothingness, but he has a long road ahead of him when it comes to structuring a story and making it amusing for the viewers. The pieces are all there; it’s how Durkin decided to put the whole project together that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene problematic.
Martha Marcy May Marlene – 5/10