Tuesday, May 22

Martha Marcy May Marlene – script review

This is a first for me.  While I’ve reviewed movies before, I’ve never reviewed just the screenplay.  Last week I decided that I should read more screenplays.  I read a lot of novels and non-fiction books, but if I want to write screenplays, then I should be reading screenplays, both professional and amateur.  While I won’t review all of them, Martha Marcy May Marlene left me with a lot of varied thoughts.  I have not seen the film.

Martha is a young woman who became entangled in a cult.  She was welcomed into the community and greeted with kindness.  Though it was a lifestyle new to her, she seemed to quickly grow into it.  Growing into the cult further began to reveal a darker side.  Though she had made the cult her life, Martha realized she could not stay.  So she runs away, and when she does so, she fears for her life.

Her sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, Ted, take her in.  But the cult had become a large part of Martha’s life over the past couple of years.  She had no contact with the outside world, not even with her own family.  While Martha has physically left the cult, she has not completely removed herself psychologically.  She now has trouble functioning in the world.

Written by Sean Durkin, the screenplay cuts back and forth between Martha living at Lucy’s and Martha’s time with the cult.  While her escape is shown early on, the rest of the movie shows us Martha’s downward spiral.  And this spiral doesn’t stop when she leaves.  Paranoia haunts her.  If someone looks even vaguely familiar she fears that they may be trying to force her back into the cult, a place she does not want to return to.  All the while Lucy has no idea of the experiences Martha went through.  She tries to help her sister, but it seems as if her hands are tied because of Martha’s unwillingness to disclose information.

In many scenes the tension feels real.  It is easy to sympathize with Martha, especially as we see her experiences.  The struggle of Lucy and Ted to help also feels real.  They don’t know what’s happening and they grow frustrated with Martha’s continued resistance.

With each page the tension seemed to rise bit by bit.  While I thought it worked well on the page, I could see where it would seem to move slower on screen than on page.  More urgency in many of the scenes could’ve created a smoother pace.  With the exception of a few scenes, the urgency wasn’t very high.  Martha had already escaped from the cult.  And while she was worried about being followed, she never opened up to her sister about what happened to her.  All Lucy ‘knew’ was that her sister was acting strange and claimed to have just broken up with a guy.  Clearly something more was happening, but Martha kept her mouth shut.  This meant any urgency was only felt by Martha, and not every scene dealt with her fear of being followed.  There was something missing, especially with Lucy’s character.  Giving a strong goal to Lucy could’ve helped the pace out a lot, and could’ve helped increase the tension already felt.  While Lucy had some small goals, they never felt particularly urgent.

Then there’s the end.  Or, rather, the lack of an end.  When I read the last page I first thought that I was reading an incomplete draft.  But that didn’t make sense.  I was reading the version of the screenplay submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was made available for free online.  I then looked around some online forums and confirmed that I had the proper draft.  While the last several pages had definitely built up a lot of tension, I hadn’t realized the climax of the story had hit.  Come to think of it, I was surprised to realize that we had already hit the third act.  The screenplay attempted an ‘ambiguous ending.’ 

I don’t mind some ambiguity at the end of my film, and I certainly don’t mind doing a little brain work out to reflect on the film.  But this was plain ridiculous.  The worst part is that I was fine with the part that was supposed to be ambiguous.

(SPOILER: Martha sees a man who she thinks might be a part of the cult following her.  Lucy and Ted notice the guy but don’t know what’s going on.  When it ends, we don’t know if he’s actually a member of the cult of if Martha is being paranoid.  I’m actually okay with this part being ambiguous. END SPOILER).

The ambiguity adds to Martha’s paranoia, but there is no resolution.  I don’t expect it to wrap up in a tidy fashion. In a story like this a tidy end wouldn’t be realistic.  But something needs to happen.  I waited the whole time for Martha to begin to trust Lucy and Ted.  I waited for her to at least attempt to overcome her experiences.  But she doesn’t.  Besides being more paranoid, she’s pretty much the same person at the end of the story as she is in the beginning.  This lack of any substantial change in her character, or even in Lucy and Ted, was a huge let down.  The characters were what drew me in.  They held such promise and they had the potential to change.  But they didn’t.  I had been looking forward to seeing this movie, but after reading the script my interest severely fell.  I’ve heard it’s well acted and well shot, but now that I know how weak the script is I certainly won’t go out of my way to watch.   Ambiguity can be fine in a film, but in this case it felt like the writer decision to be ambiguous feels more like an attempt to avoid writing a solid end.

2/5 stars

1 comment:

  1. This is a brilliant screenplay... and I read tons of "amateur" scripts every year... and not 1/100th of them come up to this level. It's really really true, there's so much crap floating around out there in Hollywood, and all it takes is writing a single good script, to vault one's self to the front row. But what is "good"? And can one write it? Ah, there's the rub....