Martha Marcy May Marlene



MOVIE RATING:  4 stars (B+)

One of the most surprising and intriguing films I saw in 2011 was director Sean Durkin’s debut feature film, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). In fact, it was one of my Top 10 Movies of 2011. I know, I know…the title is long and confusing to remember. But after seeing the movie, it becomes a lot more memorable. That’s because you WANT to remember it so you can share it with your friends. This is a film that’s really hard to talk about in terms of its story and plot. You’ve really just have to watch it and feel it and let it get into your head and move around. The less you know, the better. So I won’t spoil it by trying to talking about it in those terms.

As both writer and director of M4 (my shorthand abbreviation), Durkin has shown everyone the craft and care that’s possible from an independent filmmaker with a low production budget (under $1 Million), but a great story to tell and the passion to tell it. The real key to the success of M4 is in the excellent performances of the cast, led by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, the relatively unknown third sister of the Olsen Twins. Olsen embodies the psychologically troubled character of Martha with chilling emotional depth. She seems to have REALLY gotten into the head of Martha, which is not the best place to be, and brought everything within her to the surface for us to feel and experience in a dreamlike manner. And with a solid supporting cast of character actors that includes John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson, and Brady Corbet, the world of an un-named rural Northeast cult is brought to eerily rich life.

M4 is a smart, mysterious, and confusing psychological drama. While Durkin has written a story that keeps you guessing, it also keeps you an arm’s length away from understanding some of it’s details, which is both good and bad. Overall, I think it’s well-written and engaging, but there were times during the film where I had to simply let go of figuring something out at the moment and just follow along in a murky mist. If there is one major weakness in M4, I think it is in some of the seemingly abstract aspects of the story. But that may also be what makes the movie stand out from the crowd too. Only time will tell. I need to watch the film again to really talk more about it’s themes and ideas.

The visuals in M4 have a dark, gritty, and grainy feel, having been shot on 35mm film in what I assume was mostly natural light. And there is an incredible beauty in the shadows and gritty gray areas of the frame. I love crisp, clear and detailed digital cinematography, but 35mm film really worked well in telling this story. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes completely captured the perfect visuals here. I was constantly engaged in appreciating the compositions of each and every sequence, admiring the craftsmanship of the team behind the camera.

Probably the most striking filmmaking aspect of M4 is the editing. Lead Film Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier gave us one of the most finely edited films of 2011. The transitions between the present and the past, memory and reality, are seamless and a wonder to watch. The flow and feel of the film really came together in the editing room and took this good story with its great visuals and performances and made it something more. I’m guessing that the editing team spent A LOT of time in Post putting this film together. And it truly paid off.

Hand in hand with the editing is really stellar sound work by the sound team. The moments of quiet, the moments of just sound, the music…they all come together like they should in a psychological film like this. Again, I was continually impressed as I was watching this movie at how the editing of the visuals, together with the sound, really told this story right. Not much else to say. While the production design is simple and understated, I definitely felt transported into the rural Northeast location. The farm, the lake house, and everything in between just works. Chad Keith and his team did a great job of creating the physical world of M4 and bringing all the pieces together.

2011 was a strong year for small, independent films. And Martha Marcy May Marlene is at the top of the list of those movies. It’s the perfect film to check out on Blu-ray or DVD some Saturday afternoon or evening when you want to escape into the mind of a mystery.


Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at

This entry was posted in 4 star movies, Graphics, Movies by Brad Swenson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brad Swenson

Appreciating and contributing to the art and craft of movies, television, videos, and photography is my daily mission in life. My canvas for expression is emotion. I'm driven to discover and share interesting stories about people, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, their work, and their contributions to the web of life.

One thought on “Martha Marcy May Marlene

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Movies of 2011 | The BLACKBOXBLUE Blog

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