Martha Marcy May Marlene by Lewis Brown

Directed by Sean Durkin. Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes

In an ideal world, people would go into a cinema with no preconceptions. Imagine how refreshing it would be to watch a film with no pre-judgements based on the director, the cast, and the things you’ve heard from other people. In reality this doesn’t often happen, but occasionally something you’ve never heard of is put in front of you, and you have no idea what to expect. That’s exactly how it was for me with Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I knew nothing of the director, Sean Durkin, or the main actress, Elizabeth Olsen. I didn’t know when it had been released, or even whether it was ‘mainstream’ or ‘indie’, as people always end up classifying things. The setting can be slowly pieced together as ‘somewhere in rural New York’, although the sense of isolation is so strong that it really could be anywhere. Even now I’m not sure about the genre (thriller? drama? psychological horror?) but if that was where the ambiguity ended, Martha Marcy May Marlene would be a very different film indeed.

The plot is simple when you get down to it, built around a young woman’s escape from a violent ‘family’ to live with a relative, but the details are deliberately obscured, either kept from the viewer entirely or fed to them a morsel at a time, so that telling Martha’s story is like trying to finish a jigsaw with more than a handful of pieces missing. Even once the viewer figures out how the film is structured chronologically, there is no drop in the tension and confusion; each new shot is often focused so closely on Martha that we don’t know where or when the scene is taking place. These shots are what give the film its edge – there are many genuinely shocking and disturbing moments created by sudden shifts in tone and scenery.

These deliberately misleading transitions also impress upon you just how much ‘mainstream’ movies lead the viewer by the hand, although it’s up to you to decide whether this is a good or bad thing. Certainly many films go too far in their quest for universal appeal to the point of treating us like idiots, but less isn’t always more – a predictable film can be enjoyable too. Fortunately, an evasive plot gets on your nerves rather than filling you with curiosity, the use of ambiguity is by no means this film’s only selling point.

The way silence is employed in the early moments of the film is striking, and even after the silence is broken the lack of music and the sparse dialogue really draw attention to the actors’ body language and the things that are being left unsaid. The parallel elements of the stories are well executed and allow Durkin to make valid points about family and lifestyle, although you could be forgiven for finding the symmetry a little too neat at times.

As always, when a film does something innovative, or at least something interesting you haven’t seen before, it’s hard to find the middle ground between kneeling down and worshipping it or cynically dismissing it as gimmicky and attention-seeking. Martha Marcy May Marlene is undeniably a confident film that achieves what it sets out to do, which is to have a powerful impact and leave its hooks in the viewer. The lack of closure at the end is likely to be polarising, but personally I thought it was a brilliant film, albeit one that definitely earns its 15 certificate. Despite its positive reception when it aired at film festivals in 2011, it only received a limited cinema release and then only in America. However, it was released on DVD earlier this year, so if you are looking for something harrowing and edgy that will stay with you long after it’s finished, then this is probably one of the best films out there.