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Review: Thriller 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' offers no ending, finale

Martha Marcy May Marlene

(R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

The autumn of our cinematic discontent continues with the over-wordy and pompously titled "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (MMMM), a psychological drama that features two impressive debuts and a whole lot of deathly eerie silence. It gets a SCANT few more things right than wrong, which makes it marginally recommendable if cults, strained relationships, abrupt stops and an impending nervous breakdown do it for you.

Not saddled with the child actress/tabloid history of her famous older twin sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate, Elizabeth Olsen takes the lead as the multi-titled character and immediately eclipses everything artistic her siblings ever accomplished over the last quarter-century.

Given the nature of her mentally unstable character and her own age, Olsen could have gone the route of histrionic banshee -- and been more than justified in doing so -- but doesn't. With the exception of one (warranted) scene, Olsen remains on an even keel throughout -- even when being sexually assaulted. Like her sisters could have but never did, she relies on a hushed delivery, big sky-blue eyes, pouty lips and angular facial features to emote a plethora of conflicted feelings and emotions and she never once missteps. Olsen's is one of the great lead female breakout performances of the last decade.

While not quite as dazzling as his leading lady, rookie filmmaker Sean Durkin shows immense promise; more so as a director than screenwriter. Pinching (with respect) from Hitchcock, Eastwood and Scorsese, Durkin maintains a steady hand when dealing with tricky elements such as flashback, jump-cut editing and exceedingly dark, dimly-lit sets. Again, the material could have easily warranted the flash and hyperkinetic aesthetics of, say, Brian DePalma but Durkin goes about his business with a much more restrained and organic approach.

It's unfortunate that Durkin didn't extend the same kind of patience and care to the screenplay as he did with the technical aspects of the production. After quickly establishing Martha as a sympathetic character, Durkin keeps her stuck in neutral without much of an opportunity for the character to development. She remains the same throughout and by the time the movie reaches its conclusion, we're so weary of her non-communication and severely-challenged social skills, we want her to just go away.

John Hawkes as Patrick, a spindly yet devilishly influential cult leader, is given sufficient framework to start with but little else. The same can be said for the cult itself where Martha -- then Marcy May -- spends two years. For 90 minutes, Patrick and his followers strike a cross between blase outcast LDS polygamists and idealistic Woodstock-era hippies and only in the 11th hour does Durkin give them any noticeable bite as a group -- and it rings hallow.

Like many other productions about cults and the susceptible young people who look to them for approval and validation, "MMMM" gets the nuts 'n' bolts right but fails to flesh out the story and players to a point that can convincingly rope us in.

Durkin and the writers' final misstep -- and it is monumental -- is taking a story that in every way plays out like a thriller and then just stopping it. No ending, no finale, no payoff -- nothing. You can't toy with an audience for two hours like Durkin does here and then pull the rug out from underneath them without any emotional crescendo or closure. This huge cop-out is worse than the behavior exhibited by any of Durkin's dubious characters. (Fox Searchlight)