Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), directed by Sean Durkin

I’ve been dying to see this movie ever since it came out in the fall but this has been my first chance. It’s probably fallen under most people’s radar but I love John Hawkes and I also love quiet, slowly paced films involving people with Southern accents (hence my Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols obsessions). Also, for some reason (don’t judge me), I find cults fascinating. This movie is three for three so far.

It stars The Other Olsen Sister (Elizabeth Olsen) as a young woman who is taken in by and ultimately flees from a cult. It opens with the fleeing and the movie is one part her struggle adjusting to “normal” life while living with her sister and her husband and one part flashbacks to her experiences with the cult.

And this ain’t your regular old back-to-the-land, thank ya Geesus cult. It’s not even just a creepy old dudes preying on impressionable young women cult either. Don’t get me wrong, it is those, but it goes deeper then that. Think Manson. Think Jonestown. That sort of thing.

But I get where Martha (Marcy) is coming from when she gets sucked into the group. I would probably follow John Hawkes into anything too. Do I ever love that man. I am constantly hounding Hollywood (by, you know, yelling at my tv and the internet) to put John Hawkes in every movie they make. They’ve started to listen to me and he has been in a lot lately, but still: more, more. The Surrogate blew minds at Sundance this year, so that’s one to look out for. And anyone who hasn’t seen Winter’s Bone needs to. Now.

I don’t know what it is about him. He just has so much expression in his face and a certain maturity and understanding in the way he puts forward a character. And he’s versatile. Sometimes I want him to be my awesome Uncle and other times, as in this movie, he just scares the hell out of me. Oh, and PS John Hawkes, you need to play Rick Danko in a biopic of The Band. Seriously.

But the movie. Right. I wasn’t as taken with Martha Marcy May Marlene as I thought I would be but I have the suspicion that it would grow on me with future viewings. And maybe We Need to Talk About Kevin just took up all the appreciation for evil I had for the week.

This is a very well made movie, with striking performances, fabulously affective yet subtle cinematography and subject matter that couldn’t be juicier. And yet something held me back. It might have been Olsen, who I never quite believed and didn’t seem to have much range beyond dozy and confused. I mean, that was her character I realize, but I never got a sense of that urge for meaning or community that draws people into these cults. She just seemed so blank.

Also I think expectation entered into it. I’ve watched docs on Jonestown before and have read things here and there about cults. I know how they work and what they get up to. I was far more interested in learning about how Martha integrates back into normal life, or how the whole situation ends up playing out. And we never get that. In fact for an almost better depiction of how cults work try to hunt down the Canadian film Ticket to Heaven (or watch it on YouTube!). It’s dated but truly insightful.

So I felt like I’d seen everything in Martha Marcy May Marlene before. And just when it got to something that I was interested in…it ended. I had trouble with the end because that was what I cared about, what happens to Martha, not what had happened to Martha, because that seemed obvious.

The film is masterfully made, there is no doubt. What I had some resistance too was the story, which didn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to watch it again now that I have no expectations to focus on Hawkes’ performance and the look of the film, and maybe, knowing how it ends, find a better understanding of what it was going for and why. For now though Martha Marcy May Marlene feels half-finished.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is available on DVD and Blu-ray.