Sundance Review: Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

“She’s a picture, just a picture on my wall.”

Marcy May is flattered by the song. And scared. And avoiding the message.

“You need to open up.”

Martha wants her sister’s help. But she’s scared. And knows better than to believe the message (again).

Martha is Marcy May is Marlene. She’s a victim and teacher and a leader and a lost soul. And she’s one of the most fascinating psychologically-damaged characters in recent cinema, the lead of Sean Durkin’s intricate and astonishing debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen stars as the multi-named lead. In a curious parallel, Olsen also stars in another Sundance selection, Silent House, there also playing a dangerously disturbed woman. The actress has the unsettling ability to appear one second as an adult seductress, a flash later as an innocent child—fitting for these two films about sexual power dynamics and psychology. Like Silent House, MMMM is stylistically ingenious and genuinely frightening, but Durkin’s film also delves into profound philosophical inquiry.

The story of MMMM unfolds in fragments, steadily building in intensity and significance. Martha has escaped from the farm of an abusive, aspiring utopian family cult (where she was known as Marcy May), and is trying to acclimate into society, hiding out in a sterile and haunting glass mansion in the woods with her sister and her husband. The film flips forward and backward in time, with some cleverly disorienting edits that mirror the girl’s confusion. Or seeming confusion. Because even though Martha’s behavior is clearly odd, or even “fucking insane” (as her brother-in-law says), what is truly unique and powerful about the film is the piercing way Martha’s viewpoint appears just and rational in their own off-kilter way.

Martha is simultaneously fiercely intelligent and completely brainwashed, stridently independent and desperately needy. It’s a psychology that Durkin has developed and Olsen inhabited and that becomes utterly believable and hypnotic. Martha is a cipher for the communities she has inhabited, and a mirror for viewers of the film. She is not just a tortured mind, a victim of circumstances most in the audience will never face. She is one of us. And she has questions for us, insights to share.

Like many thoughtful children of America’s striving middle-class, she has doubts about the lifestyle, and then boldly points out that chasing materialist dreams is not the best way to pursue happiness. But she must also acknowledge that seeking a radical but patriarchal communal vision can also be hazardous. Martha is in need of love and support, but even as her cult family and her real family pressure her to “let her guard down,” Martha makes a daring and cynical case for secrets, isolation. In an increasingly over-connected world, MMMM raises the specter of a nihilistic radical individualism.

The Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund and Edgeworx Studios awarded the film a post-production grant, and the results are a revelation. Shot within a cocoon of lush darkness, the tension and downright fear palpable in every frame, the look of MMMM is as crisply murky as the psycho-social terrain it explores. It’s a dark and powerful film, and Rooftop is proud to have supported it. Now we’re looking forward to unleashing it upon the rest of the world.