Martha Marcy May Marlene (Blu-ray Review)

It is not rare to see independently made thrillers every so often, but it certainly is satisfying to see one that is well acted and crafted, rich with intrigue, and full of disturbingly quiet tension.  The tongue twistery-titled film Martha Marcy May Marlene is one that unfolds skillfully, telling a story set within two timelines that involves a young girl’s plight while under the control of a cult and her struggle to assimilate back into normal life after escaping it.  The overall narrative does not supply any more information than it has to and plays out like a slow burn, but there is a strong level tension that boils under the surface and a number of uncomfortable scenes that work very well with the story that is presented.  Along with the breakout work from the lead actress, the rest of the effort done to put together Martha Marcy May Marlene was strong enough to have the film creep its way into being one of my favorite films of 2011 and now it is available on Blu-ray.


Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a young woman who became a follower/victim of a cult up in the Catskill Mountains.  The film is presented with two timelines running concurrently with one another.  It begins with Martha’s escape, as she flees through the woods, finds a local diner, and calls her older sister, Lucy (Sara Paulson) for help.  From there, we watch Martha attempt to adjust back into normal life, as she spends time living with Lucy and Lucy’s new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), in their lakeside house in Connecticut.  Martha doesn’t go into detail at all about what’s she’s been through, but Lucy and Ted certainly sense a lot of trouble in her.

As the film shifts its focus back in time to recall Martha’s experience within the cult, we see that things were quite intense for her.  Although the initial sights may seem to portray a family-sharing-like atmosphere, due in most part to the cult’s charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawks), the situation reveals itself to be much worse and very abusive.  There is a helplessness and an added sense of paranoia that deeply affects Martha and possibly her world view, even after she manages to escape.

Martha:  Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if something’s a dream?

This movie is no thrill ride from a high momentum standpoint, but I was incredibly tense throughout, given the disorientation that this film provides, by basing it from Martha’s perspective.  It is a very quiet thriller that manages to become unnerving by the careful uses of stylistic elements such as slow tracking shots, darkness, and dream-like transitions.  The level of craftsmanship seen in this movie does a great job at turning something very minimal into something very quietly intense (This movie was snubbed of an Oscar nomination for editing in my opinion).  The measured performances only go well to serve things further.

Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest and apparently most talented of the Olsen siblings, does fantastic work here.  She embodies the persona of a truly messed up girl, both before and after her experience with this abusive cult.  Given the little we learn of her relationships with others, prior to entering the cult, it seems almost appropriate that she would find solace in the woods with these people.  On the other hand, as we learn what Martha has gone through during these experiences, it is perfectly appropriate for her to escape the brainwashing as well as react the way she does, once back in reality.  And with this material and complexity assigned to the character, Olsen truly excels.  Never overplaying anything, but portraying a clearly troubled individual.

The supporting performances are also solid.  I expected this from John Hawkes, who is only just now becoming a character actor recognized more so for the talent he has been bringing to films for years.  I was also very pleased with the work done by Paulson and Dancy, as characters understandably troubled by Martha’s confused and confounding reactions to this unfamiliar life she is now a part of.  These adult actors are patient and reserved, both as characters and in their performances.

I very much admired writer/director Sean Durkin’s choices to reveal only so much plotting, letting the audience piece together all that they need to with concern to the plot and its smaller details, such as what this cult worships, what the various responsibilities of its members are, etc.  Instead, Durkin chooses to let us follow Martha’s perspective on these matters.  There is also the added complexity that Durkin brings to the film through his clever use of cinematography (and, again, the editing) to suggest that the images we see of the cult could either be flashbacks or dreams in many cases (some of the present day scenes for that matter as well).  When the film reaches its conclusion, it is a credit to the filmmaking that I was able to admire its openness and how it works as a solid conversation starter.

‘Quietly chilling’ is a perfectly suitable way that I feel I can describe this film.  There are instances that can easily get under your skin, given how uncomfortable some of the scenes shown in this film are.  And this is accomplished without high levels of graphic brutality, but with many instances of silence and careful photography.  ‘Martha’ is also bolstered by its very solid performances and unsettling atmosphere.  I enjoyed this film a great deal, not in a fun sort of way, but due to how effective I found it to be.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been handed a pamphlet asking me to join in on togetherness out in the woods.


Given that I really admired the cinematography in this film, I was quite pleased by its transfer onto Blu-ray.  There is a crisp nature to the 35mm photography that lends itself nicely to the picture quality here, especially given the nature of the dream-like perspective and handling on the visuals.  The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer does well to highlight how stark the color palette is.  This is especially apparent in the scenes at the lake house, which are set in an area that is bright and sunny, but this film has an atmosphere that is very contradictory to that aspect and as a result, the bleakness effectively bleeds into this setting.  There is much more graininess involved in the scenes back at the cult, which is fitting, especially given the use of 35mm photography, but this is not to the detriment of the quality of the actual Blu-ray disc.


The audio presentation on the Blu-ray disc is also pretty solid.  The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does proper justice to how this film’s score and sound mixing were designed to play out for the most part.  I did have some issues with volume control when it came to hearing dialogue in certain instances, but never to much that it overt distraction to the whole experience.  What counts is how the quietness of the film plays out.  Lots of ambient noise throughout, with a subtle score for the most part, which feels very well represented in this audio track.  It doesn’t hurt that listening to John Hawkes sing and play guitar is a delight to itself.


So we have a collection of extras on this disc, all presented in HD, but only one or two worth noting.  Once again, I’m always disappointed in the lack of a commentary, but not every filmmaker wants to do one which is fine.  Still, there is one key feature that had me the most intrigued and excited to check out, while the rest are basically fluff.

Features Include:

Mary Last Seen – This is the short film from writer/director Sean Durkin, who made this as a semi-prequel to Martha Marcy May Marlene.  It features one of the actors from the main film and is very stylistically similar as well.  Well worth a watch, just as a very cool little bonus that fits right in with the film.

The Psyche of a Cult – A five minute featurette that provides some brief analysis in regards to the allure of living in a cult society.

Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen – A simple extra that provides a very brief interview with star Elizabeth Olsen.

The Story – Another simple extra that has the actors and filmmaker Sean Durkin going over the story in their own words.

The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene – A misleading title for an incredibly brief look at the film, featuring more interviews from the cast, as they go over some thoughts on putting this film together.

A Conversation with Filmmakers – Again, way to brief, but this extra does provide some focus on Sean Durkin along with his friends and fellow filmmaking cohorts Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, who discuss the film.

Theatrical Trailer and Sneak Peeks


I took away a lot from this film in regards to recognizing Elizabeth Olsen as a great young actress, who I think will go far in the future.  I hope the same for writer/director Sean Durkin as well, who has debuted with a pretty fantastic film that plays well off of its deliberate structure in an effort to create great atmosphere throughout.  The Blu-ray is quite solid as well; delivering a pretty great video/audio experience, while providing a scattering of extras that is best benefited by having the appropriate short film with it.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is understandably not a wonderfully entertaining experience for everyone, but certainly a riveting and tense one to check out.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

5 Responses to “Martha Marcy May Marlene (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. Brian White

    I’m looking forward very much to checking this out. Good job with the review Aaron!

  2. Mary

    Aaron, this film shits it focus? What does that mean? LOL

    Wonderful review though!

  3. Tina

    Aaron, I’m confused, how does one shit it’s focus? LOL

    Anyway, it’s a great review.

  4. Aaron Neuwirth

    It’s been shifted to correct spelling now. 🙂

  5. Yancy

    hey there, your website is great. I do thank you for your hard work!