Sundance 2011. Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

David Hudson

"The Borderline Films boys, who along with their mid-aughts NYU grad cohorts have been responsible for the gorgeous and startlingly cold festival hits Afterschool (Antonio Campos) and Two Gates of Sleep (Alistair Banks Griffin), are back with their most chilling tale yet, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene." Brandon Harris for Filmmaker: "Shot by the indispensable Jody Lee Lipes with the same cool precision he brought to those previous films, Durkin's movie is an elliptical if thematically thin mind-and-body shock of the Michael Haneke variety."

"The feature follows a young girl named Martha, who finally escapes from a cult/commune in upstate New York into the arms of her anal-retentive sister [Sarah Paulson], who whisks her away to a weekend lake cabin straight out of a Restoration Hardware catalogue," writes John Lopez for Vanity Fair. "There, her sister's financially stable architect fiancé [Hugh Dancy] soon grows tired of Martha's increasingly erratic antics, such as taking nude dips in the lake, throwing rocks at his car window, and critiquing his vapid bourgeois aspirations with saucy bon mots. Martha refuses to say where exactly she spent the last two years of her life, but we learn of her adventures through a series of skillfully interweaved scenes: wooed into a cult led by a charismatic strongman, Martha endures degradations unfit for print even on the Internet. A moody, atmospheric, and lush visual experience, Martha Marcy May Marlene takes the clichés of cult movies and turns them on their heads. The rectifying coldness of the lake house contrasts with oppressive warmth of the commune, and as the film cranks the wheel of psychological tension ever tighter, we come to realize how far Martha is from a normal life."

"Elizabeth Olsen stars as the multi-named lead," blogs Mark Elijah Rosenberg for Rooftop Films. "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."

"Olsen has an instant screen charisma and it's hard to not see her joining Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan as the industry's favorite new ingenues," suggests Gregory Ellwood at HitFix.

"Olsen ably juggles this tricky role, which depends so heavily on the character's between-the-lines personal history," agrees Variety's Peter Debruge. "The younger sibling of the millionaire Olsen twins, she has Maggie Gyllenhaal's soulful ease and saucer eyes, as well as Angelina Jolie's husky voice and bee-stung lips. Among the other cast members, Funny Games star Brady Corbet (a creepy carryover from the short) continues his drift to the dark side."

Anthony Kaufman for Screen: "The film skillfully cuts back and forth between Martha's life in Connecticut, as she fails miserably to connect with her sister and reintegrate into 'normal' society, and her time at the commune, which initially appears blissfully utopian, and yet quickly takes on greater shades of oppression, exploitation and violence. Martha, it seems, is trapped in either location. As the commune's patriarch, actor John Hawkes, looking even more emaciated and feral here than in Winter's Bone, perfectly captures the alternating charisma and menace so often seen in cult leaders."

David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter: "The film impresses most in its ability to sustain a mood of quiet dread, kicking up several visceral notches in the occasional stunning explosion of violence or verbal altercation. Right through to its ambiguous ending, the spell is transfixing."

"Lipes's penchant for fluid camera movement here evokes the best of the Dardenne brothers as he holds Martha's face in extended close-ups and shadowy wide shots, suggesting dark forces lurking on the edge of each frame," notes Eric Kohn at indieWIRE, also featuring an interview with Durkin.


More viewing (12'37"). Eric Lavallee has video of the Q&A that followed the premiere. And yet more viewing (30'20"). David Poland talks with Durkin and all four cast members mentioned above.

Screening in the US Dramatic Competition.

Updates, 1/26: "What makes Olsen's cult experience so unnerving is that in many ways she's a better fit there than she is in Paulson's upper-class dream-world," finds Noel Murray at the AV Club. "She's a true misfit, not sure of where to go or what to do. And then there are those damned windows, which Durkin keeps sticking into the back of shots, as a reminder that Olsen's past could come back to consume her — and that part of her maybe wishes that it would." Grade: A-.

"Stories like these open doors to all kinds of lurid characterization, but Durkin's superb cast finds multiple shadings in their roles," writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. "The film impresses most in its ability to sustain a mood of quiet dread interspersed with the occasional explosion of violence or verbal altercation. Right through to its ambiguous ending, the spell is transfixing."

"One of the most captivating narrative dramas in this year's competition," finds Damon Smith at Reverse Shot.

Viewing (2'09"). Movieline interviews Olsen.

Update, 1/29: Jamie Stuart shoots Filmmaker's interview with Olsen and Hawkes.

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