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A cult film that won’t be a cult film

Slow thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene – lauded at Sundance, ignored by the Oscars – isn’t challenging, just vague.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Editor

Topics Politics

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In the wake of the eighty-fourth Academy Awards ceremony, the wave of articles and blog posts criticising the Oscars committee for its poor taste in films has become as ubiquitous and as tiresome as the gossip-mag ‘best dressed’ lists. Of course, it is completely understandable, considering that – as ever – this year’s awards honoured very few of the truly groundbreaking films of the past 12 months. Nevertheless, it seems rather unnecessary, and based on a staunch refusal to just accept the Oscars for the pointless, flashy show that it is and move on with one’s life.

A name which figured prominently in this explosion of film-buff bile was Sean Durkin’s indie flick, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Despite receiving the US Directing Award for Best Drama at the Sundance film festival and garnering a lot of critical acclaim since, Durkin’s debut didn’t get a single Oscar nomination. As such, it was mentioned in the same breath as Melancholia and Drive, as one of the great films of 2011 shamefully passed over by those fools on the committee. However, even if the Academy were more inclined to honour lesser-known indie releases, this chronically underwhelming psychological thriller certainly wouldn’t earn a place.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a wayward young woman who is taken in by an unseemly cult. The film begins right in the middle of things, as she escapes from the clutches of the ‘family’ of lost souls, who live on a farm owned by creepy Charles Manson lookalike Patrick (John Hawkes). Unsure what to do, she calls her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and comes to stay with her and husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), in their lakeside holiday home. Martha seems paranoid, deranged and still somewhat brainwashed by her experience, yet she refuses to say anything about where she has been for the past few years. Flitting back and forth in time, the film slowly fills in the blanks of what happened.

Durkin opts for a slow, languid style, presumably to keep us on the edge of our seats and ready to pounce on every little secret which is revealed, but what we are given is far from titillating. The cult, as it turns out, is pretty standard fare, a kind of hippy commune that hides darker practices beneath its familial exterior. Similarly, Martha is your classically diffident lost soul, whose abandonment issues lead her to take refuge with the wrong kind of people.

Ultimately, far too much is left unsaid, and Durkin’s attempts to ground the cult thriller in a more naturalistic and frayed form is incredibly dull. The direction is expressive enough, with bleached rural landscapes and lingering close-ups that invite us to brood over the tragedy of the protagonist, but there remains a critical lack at the centre of the narrative. In the absence of anything particularly dramatic, the audience is asked to intuit what we will from the sparse details we are provided. Unfortunately, as we are given so little to go on, the film eventually just washes over you, and leaves almost no emotional impact at all.

As it limps into its second half, the film’s painful ambiguity becomes the only thing keeping you engaged. Desperately trying to find a way through the tedium, you end up grasping at small details hoping they’ll lead somewhere, but invariably they don’t. Martha goes for open-ended and understated but comes off looking merely unfinished. The characters are either repellantly transparent, like respectable yuppie couple Lucy and Ted, or frustratingly opaque like Martha herself. Either way, by the end of the film it’s hard to care about what has, or indeed what will, happen to her.

The Oscars is always likely to leave a foul taste in the mouth of film fans, but if you’re looking for something that will revive your faith in genuine, incisive filmmaking, don’t bother watching Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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