Martha Marcy May Marlene [Blu-ray]
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Strangely, communally based cults have never really been examined through the lens of cinema with any interest in the social mechanics and psychological effects of the environment, that is, until now. First time writer/director Sean Durkin has brilliantly pieced together a deeply haunting depiction of cult life that presents the mental ramifications of living so far outside of social norms with disturbing certainty. In her big screen debut, Elizabeth Olsen plays the lead, proving herself to be a top shelf actress with a nebulous portrayal of a young woman over the course of the two weeks following her escape from a cult. Though Olsen, Durkin, and the film overall was sadly overlooked at the Oscars, Martha Marcy May Marlene deservingly garnered mass critical praise, as well as the Directing Award at Sundance last year.
After living in a cultic commune in upstate New York for a couple years, Martha (Olsen) escapes, calling her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), for help. Lucy takes Martha back to her vacation home in Connecticut to stay with her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) until she can get back on her feet, but normalcy never comes to fruition. Instead, Martha's everyday experiences are shaped by her time spent in the cult. As she tries to readjust, flashbacks from the commune fluidly interplay with the unfolding story. We see her indoctrination into the group by its quietly terrifying leader (John Hawkes), her relationship with the other women, their ways of making money, and a wide variety of other group activities. Paralyzed by paranoia and a warped world view, Martha can't seem to function, and what's worse, she believes the cult is trying to hunt her down.
Olsen is a revelation here. Who knew there was an Olsen sister that can seriously act? She runs the gamut between vibrant young commune hopeful to terrified psychotic on the run, all while balancing a stark confidence and fragile vulnerability. It doesn't hurt that her Olsen genes give her a strange sense of familiarity that lends itself to the film.
Durkin's story is pieced together elegantly with long takes, matching shots, and a dreamlike editing sensibility. The duel narrative weaves in and out without notice, occasional disorienting the viewer within the time line. This makes for excellent tension building that is amplified by Olsen's powerful performance. Visually, the film has a strange look to it. In post production, the black levels in the film were all rounded down to a dark grey, making shadows and figures run together into a opaque murk. It is a strikingly cold look, especially in the forested environments that surround the commune.
The Fox Blu-ray release is a gallant home release for an incredible film. The disc packs a stellar visual presentation, with its grey palette portrayed with crisp detail. Martha is a pretty subdued film, so the 5.1 DTS-HD master track doesn't have much of a chance to show off, but dialogue and natural ambiance is recreated with ease. Included on the disc are a bunch of extra features, though many of which are fairly flimsy. The most substantial extra is the inclusion of Durkin's 15-minute short film Mary Last Seen, which was a precursor to Martha. There are five short featurettes that highlight Olsen, Durkin, cult psychology, and the making of the film. Even with their short lengths, they unfortunately overlap a bit, and lack any real depth. There is also a music video of John Hawkes playing the ominous “Marcy's Song” from the film. The disc itself is packaged in a standard Blu-ray case.
As one of the best psychological dramas in years, Martha Marcy May Marlene comes as an easy recommendation. If you didn't manage to catch it in theaters on its minuscule theatrical run, now is the time to see it. The disc is solid, the performances are outstanding, and the production as a whole could not be more suited for the material it works with. Durkin's debut has placed him at the top of the list of new filmmakers to watch. So, please do so.
--Jordan M. Smith
Release Date: February 21, 2012