Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

The new movie “Martha Marcy May Marlene” desperately wants “indie street cred.”  Everything, from its nearly impossible to remember title, to its rural settings and interminable long takes, makes the film play like a spoof of an independent film.  If only it was.

“M4” has been released under the “Sundance” imprimatur, giving the impression that this is a quality work from the Sundance Film Festival.  “M4,” in fact, won the Best Director award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (and was also an Official Selection for the Cannes Film Festival 2011).  As readers of my column know, I frequently champion the causes of small films, be they narratives or documentaries.  So, it really annoys me, and is contrary to my efforts, that Sundance has chosen to single out, and put its stamp on, such an unexceptional movie.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) the titular character, has escaped from a cult in upstate New York.  Think Manson Family lite, led by standard issue tall, skinny leader complete with tiny, devilish beard and bad skin.

Martha moves in with her, well off, sympathetic sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and unsympathetic brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their summer home.  They live in a lake house in Connecticut. Not the greatest houseguest, Martha proves herself to be alternately unbalanced and unsympathetic.  After her demonstration of an inappropriate daylight nude swim, followed by a poorly timed decision to suddenly join her sister and brother-in-law in bed, the tension, what little there is of it, is ratcheted up.

“M4” is slowly paced and features unlikable characters, about whom it is difficult to care.  The story drags as it cuts between present and past.  The film takes way too long to reveal what is going on.  The scenes set in the past detail Martha’s time in the cult, where she lived a communal existence on a dreary farm.  These scenes are inter-cut with her stay in Connecticut.

Many of the film’s scenes play out in one shot.  I love it when a director can bring off a scene in one, unbroken shot.  However, this is not the case here.  I had the impression that not enough coverage (alternate angles, close-ups, etc.) was shot for many of the scenes. Why else are so many of them long and lifeless?  My guess is that there was nothing else to cut to, to speed up the proceedings.  I can think of no greater proof than the fact that an audience member, at the showing I attended, fell asleep twice and began to snore each time.  The incident elicited knowing laughs from fellow audience members, clearly sympathetic to the man’s plight.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, Director Sean Durkin, 2011, Universal Pictures104 minutes,


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on November 8, 2011, in New, Off the Beaten Path and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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