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Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/21/2012

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/22/2012

Every year, entertainment reporters, media bloggers, and movie pundits descend upon Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. And every year, we get reports of the movies there which blew people away and what's going to be the next big thing. In my experience, a lot of this is hyperbole and the movie's not only fail to make any splash at the box office, they typically aren't satisfying. The problem is that these "next big thing" movies rarely offer anything new or different. (Most are boring slice-of-life movies.) So, it's nice to see a movie like Martha Marcy May Marlene, which may not live up to the hype, but at least tries to bring us something unique.

As Martha Marcy May Marlene opens, we witness Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flee from a group of people with which she's been living. She leaves their rural home and goes to town, where she calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy retrieves Martha and they go to the Connecticut summer home which Lucy shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Once there, the story is divided into two sections. We see flashbacks in which Martha joined a commune-like group which was lead by Patrick (John Hawkes). In this setting, everyone lives together and shares in the responsibilities, but the women are subservient...in every way. As the story progresses, we learn that this hippie-esque group has a dark side. In the present, we watch Martha attempt to adjust to life with Lucy and Ted. She is withdrawn, quiet, and seemingly doesn't know what to do in social situations. Has her time with the group left her permanently damaged?

With Martha Marcy May Marlene, Writer/Director Sean Durkin brings us a very interesting film which presents a unique story idea. If you watch a lot of horror films, especially ones from the 70s, then you've seen plenty of cults in movies. They usually wear hooded robes and they have some sort of diabolical plot. But, outside of that, we rarely see cults addressed in any sort of serious way, unless you count docu-dramas based on things like Jonestown or Waco. Martha Marcy May Marlene presents the idea of a cult as a family-like situation where everyone lives together in harmony. The idea of material goods (like food) are put aside for the idea of working as a unit. However, the place is far from ideal, and everyone is not treated equally. John Hawkes brings a nicely understated performance to Patrick. He's not overly charismatic, he just wants to be your friend. But, watch as he uses subtle mind-games like never calling anyone by their given name. The cult goes from being a tranquil place to a scary one.

Durkin also uses creative editing techniques to tell the story. Again, the story starts in the present, as Martha leaves the cult and moves in with Lucy. But, it doesn't take long for the flashbacks to begin. The interesting thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene is that Durkin doesn't signal that a flashback is about to occur and scenes in the past and the present are cut together seamlessly, so that it can take the viewer a moment to realize that a transition has taken place. This happens a few times during the movie, and the effect is jarring. This is accompanied by an overall sense of dread which permeates the movie. Through the use of deliberate pacing and a cicada-like sound effect, Durkin convinces us that something bad could happen at any moment.

These very positive attributes are counter-balanced by two big problems with Martha Marcy May Marlene -- problems which keep the film from being satisfying. First of all, despite the sense of doom which covers the film, there is no payoff. AP English types will argue that the ambiguous ending fits the film perfectly, but I felt that it had to deliver something, and it doesn't. This would have been so disappointing if we'd been given more on the front end, which brings us to the other issue with the movie. We learn very little about Martha's past, and when she tells Lucy that she's been with a boyfriend, Lucy believes her. It takes a series of bizarre outbursts from Martha for Lucy to finally begin questioning where her sister has really been for the past two years. We get the feeling that the two aren't especially close, but when someone has been missing for two years, you ask some probing questions. I simply couldn't get over this point. This may sound like nit-picking, but once you witness some of the things which Martha does, then you'll understand. In addition, if Martha was strong-willed enough to break away from the cult and flee, why didn't she have the nerve to call the police and report some of the things which she experienced? It's implied that she's been brainwashed, but the two ideas don't gel.

Problems aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene does bring us two promising debuts. This marks the feature film debut from Durkin, and he clearly shows an understanding of using the visual medium of film for telling a story. He simply needs to work on ironing out the wrinkles of said story and he shows a promising future. This was also the debut of Elizabeth Olsen in a leading role. She shows real depth and does a great job of showing how haunted and scared Martha is. She's become the new "it" girl and has several projects lined up. (I can't wait to see her in the remake of The Silent House.) In the end, Martha Marcy May Marlene is by no means a bad movie, but it's one of those films which grabs you while watching it, but when it's done, you realize that you have more questions than answers.

Martha Marcy May Marlene clearly didn't have a bra budget on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 3.5 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only trace amounts of grain and no defects from the source material. However, there is one shot which is notably grainier than the others, leading me to wonder if it was done very early or very late in the shoot. The movie has been shot in a natural way -- the colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The picture doesn't have the depth which we've seen on other Blu-ray Discs, and the image looks a bit flat. In addition, the picture is somewhat soft at times. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 36 Mbps. The track delivers clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo and surround effects benefit from the buzzing sound which permeates the film. We get a good feel for sounds occurring off-screen through the front channels and the outdoor scenes bring us subtle surround sound effects.

The Martha Marcy May Marlene Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. "Mary Last Seen" (14 minutes) is a short film which Director Sean Durkin made as a way to set the stage for Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's not a prequel, but it deals with similar themes. "Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen" (3 minutes) is an interview with the actress who discusses her attraction to the film and the production. Durkin and the cast talk about the characters and the plot in "The Story" (4 minutes). "The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene" (3 minutes) is a brief featurette which contains some short interviews and on-set footage. "A Conversation with Filmmakers" (3 minutes) is an interview with Durkin, and Producers Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, all of whom met in film school. "The Psyche of a Cult" (5 minutes) contains comments from cult expert Rachel Bernstein who explains some of the things we see in the film. (But not explaining Lucy and Ted's actions.) We get a MUSIC VIDEO for the song "Marcy's Song" by John Hawkes...and it's not just footage from the movie. The extras are rounded out by the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long