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Movie Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene

MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.

Reviewed by: Julia Webster

Extremely Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Thriller Drama
2 hr.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
October 21, 2011 (limited—4 theaters)
DVD: February 21, 2012
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures
abusive cult

What is a cult? Answer

What are the top ten cults in the U.S.? Answer

Are you the victim of mind control? Answer
A simple test that helps to determine if the group you or a loved on are involved in could be considered a cult.

What should followers of Christ do when cults coming knocking? Answer

Want to know how best to address inaccurate biblical teaching and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those involved in a group that may be a cult? Our site offers information on cults. You are also invited to submit your own information if you have experience in this area.
sexual perversion

lascivious, lust, fornication

What are the consequences of sexual immorality? Answer

severe paranoia

FEAR, Anxiety and Worry—What does the Bible say? Answer

Sex, Love and Relationships
Learn how to make your love the best it can be. Christian answers to questions about sex, marriage, sexual addictions, and more. Valuable resources for Christian couples, singles and pastors.
Featuring: Elizabeth Olsen … Martha
Christopher Abbott … Max
Brady Corbet … Watts
Hugh DancyTed
Maria Dizzia … Katie
Julia Garner … Sarah
more »
Director: Sean Durkin
Producer: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cunningham & Maybach Films
more »
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Did you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?”

The darling of the 2011 independent film awards, including Sundance, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the first full length feature written and directed by newcomer Sean Durkin. Durkin and lead actress Elizabeth Olsen were nominated for and won many of the year’s awards across the U.S. and Canada. In the extra features of the DVD, the viewer learns that the project originated in a short film called “Mary Last Seen,” which tells the story of a young girl being abducted into a cult.

The filmmaking is certainly excellent, reminiscent of the care the Coen Brothers put into each of their films, through their writing, storyboarding, and cinematography. The creepiness is depicted very well through shadows and faded coloring, combined with a minimal score and long silences. Added to this, the characters, underdressed in what appears to be a northern climate in summer, give the viewer the distinct feeling of being cold.

The story begins on a remote farm where a group of men, women, and children live together in a community. The viewer quickly realizes there is something different about this group, starting with the dinner that is served to several of the men as the women watch. The raggedly-dressed women later sit down to their own meal, which consists of bowls of thin broth.

Later, one of the young women, who had been called Marcy May, runs away into the woods, and is followed by members of the group. Finally, thinking she is free of them, she enters a café and is wolfing down a sandwich when she is found by one of the young men of the community. He encourages her to come back and she refuses.

The rest of the film follows the reunion of Marcy May, whose real name is Martha, with her sister and her brother-in-law, after and unexplained absence of two years. Martha is withdrawn and prone to odd behaviors as she struggles with entering normal society, while at the same time wanting to return to the commune. She has trouble relating to her sister and her brother-in-law, and causes disruption to the couple’s life.

Martha’s original entrance and adoption into the commune is told in a series of flashbacks, which, though confusing, mimic Martha’s disjointed feelings and memories, as she is brain-washed. The commune, which is clearly a cult similar to those of David Koresh or Charles Manson, operates by a bit of farming, but mostly by theft. A new young woman enters the group, and is renamed and “trained” by Martha as Martha had been, including drugging and animal-style sex on the first night with the charismatic (though creepy) leader. After each night’s break-ins and thefts, the group engages in sexual orgies. The name Marlene is used by the group for communicating with the outside world, usually through telephone calls. Obviously, their bodies are not treated as God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), as they indulge in all kinds of debauchery and sin (Romans 13:12-14).

The viewer can picture a wolf pack or lion pride, where one strong member dominates the group, single men follow behind him, and women are practically excluded, except for their use in mating and as hunters. But “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is not National Geographic; though it is engrossing, it is ultimately horrifying.

Foul language is heavy, with around 20 uses of the f-word and the misuse of our Lord’s names about 10 times. Sex is shown throughout the film, usually in some kind of depraved manner, and one of the nightly thefts includes a horrifying stabbing. Drug use is also depicted. Children are shown within the cult’s environment.

Though “Martha Marcy May Marlene” might be well-made and critically acclaimed, I don’t recommend it for Christian viewers.

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Extreme

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:


Neutral—First of all, I need to say that we have a Clearplay filter, so the parts that the other reviewer talked about (nudity, extreme violence) were filtered out. I would not want to see those things. However, with the filtering, it was a very intriguing movie. Patrick reminded me enough of Charles Manson, of Helter Skelter, that perhaps it didn’t seem so unrealistic to me.

Without saying too much, I thought the movie lacked a strong ending. I felt like I was eagerly waiting to see what was going to happen, only to find out, the movie was over. So, I would recommend this movie if you can filter out the worst parts.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Pam, age 44 (USA)
Negative—Could not take the stupid script and the violence and nudity. This movie went no where. We walked out in the last 15 minutes. Others walked out before us. What do light and dark have in common. Nothing.
My Ratings: Moral rating: / Moviemaking quality:
—John M., age 66 (USA)
Negative—If you want to watch a cult movie, and one that is actually a good movie, watch “Savage Messiah” (2002), which is also a true story. This movie was a waste of time and quite pointless, as there was very little character development.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3½
—TJ, age 30 (Canada)

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