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“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” reviewed

“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” reviewed (photo)

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Early one morning, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) wakes before the rest of her fellow members of an unnamed cult, and runs off into the woods around the dilapidated farmhouse where they all live. She stops to eat at a coffee shop somewhere, and one of the men from the cult (Brady Corbett) catches up with her. He comes in and sits across from her at a booth, and encourages her to return with him. Then he eats her food without asking permission and leaves. He doesn’t threaten Martha, who he calls Marcy May. He doesn’t have to. Even after Martha physically escapes, she’s still mentally trapped back on that farm.

It’s that sad and disturbing fact that lends “Martha Marcy May Marlene” its unsettling power. The details about this cult — its horrifically abusive initiations and peculiar daily rituals — are all important and interesting, and they’re certainly a very marketable hook for a movie with a first-time director and few recognizable actors. But this movie is really a character study of a deeply troubled girl who discovers that once you’ve lost your identity it’s almost impossible to find it again.

Martha is rescued from a bus stop by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and taken to the lake house where she is vacationing with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). There’s no evidence that anyone from the cult has followed her or has any idea where she is. For all intents and purposes, Martha is free and safe. If only she could convince herself of that fact. When sounds or images remind Martha of things that happened to her on the farm, the film drags her back there for prolonged, painful flashbacks. A noise from the lake house roof may trigger a return to one of the cult’s home invasions, where they’d toss stones at houses in the middle of the night to see if anyone stirred before they broke in. Writer/director Sean Durkin shoots the lake house and farm to look almost identical, which often makes us feel as disoriented as Martha. It’s just one of the many ways Durkin and his editor, Zachary Stuart-Pontier, put us inside their heroine’s tortured headspace.

Durkin’s screenplay is sparse and exposition is minimal; again, the better to disorient us and help us to understand Martha’s confused perspective. And as the subject of all this confusion, Olsen is fantastic. The worse the character unravels, the better Olsen’s performance gets. She pulls off a very difficult feat here: she manages to be simultaneously sympathetic and also kind of unlikable. As a member of the cult, Martha makes some horrible choices. Back with her family, she remains aloof and even cruel, even as Lucy and Ted try everything they can think of to make her feel welcome.

Though Olsen is the undeniable standout, the rest of the cast is very strong as well, with Paulson and Dancy striking just the right notes of concern and exasperation, and John Hawkes oozing equal amounts of charm and menace as the leader of the cult. The twin timelines build to a crescendo of violence and madness that caps off the only way this story really can, with even more uncertainty. That could be frustrating if “Martha Marcy May Marlene” weren’t
ultimately about putting the viewer inside the mindset of someone made a prisoner by their own memories. Durkin’s brilliant final shot ensures we’re held captive by our own dark thoughts long after we leave the theater.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is now playing in limited release. If you see it, let us know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…


A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.