Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
A forlorn and soul-searching young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) joins a cult adhering to old-fashioned values and living, only to find herself tyrannized and abused by the leader (John Hawkes) whom she at first found charismatic and seductive. She escapes and moves in with her estranged sister and brother-in-law whose ordinary outlook on life and lack of psychological insight makes her feel almost as maladjusted there as she was in the cult she left behind.
The premise is more than intriguing, and the filmmakers intentions are both timely and relevant; a dissection of the lure and danger of cult life contrasted with modern capitalistic living. The only problem is that the script is only scraping the surface of the former, and the cult presented is too stereotypical and unremarkable to make a lasting impression. It's as if writer/director Sean Durkin's knowledge on the subject is based on sensationalistic books about the Manson family and other hippie-style 1960s cults, and coupled with his low-key, almost unnarrative directing style, the film doesn't give any real impression of Martha's life in the cult, except for what we all could have guessed beforehand: sexual abuse, the enforcing of traditionalistic sex roles, muddled moralistic logic.
You'll have lots of unanswered questions when watching Martha Marcy May Marlene. For instance, what lured Martha into joining in the first place? And how did she fall for Patrick's charm? I'm trying to figure out whether the film is so undertold because Durkin doesn't really have more to communicate, or if it is to satisfy his would-be art-housish aspirations. At any rate, the result is a bleak account on a potentially powerful subject matter. And this is a shame, because the film's two lead roles is played with real potency by Elizabeth Banks and John Hawkes. The former gets lots of screen time and enough opportunity to investigate her character fully, but the plot doesn't support her with much room for development. The latter is criminally underused by Durkin, who clearly didn't realize what potential lied in the casting of Hawkes in a role like this. This is the second year running that Hawkes finds himself perfectly cast in bad guys roles in films which haven't lived up to what they promised (after Winter's Bone last year), and I suspect the Oscar bunch might over-evaluate Martha Marcy May Marlene and award him with a nomination once again - something which would easily have been deserved, had the script given him room to shine. Not to mention how much more powerful it would have made this film.
Instead, we are left watching the unevolving relationship between to estranged sisters who don't understand each other, and how the elder's ignorance impedes the younger's betterment. Not totally uninteresting per se, but that's not where the focus of this film should have been; it should have been on Martha's mental state and development in her relationship with Patrick.