Vengeance Is Hers in ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’

Posted June 21, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT

An unwavering slow burn, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” goes down exactly as announced. Marlina, a young widow living in remote Indonesia, spills blood in a story that plays out in four discrete acts. Each of the titled acts telegraphs some impending event (“The Robbery,” “The Birth”) and is clearly meant to create a mild sense of anticipation, much like the movie’s own explanatory title. Mostly, these are self-aware art-film touches ornamenting a blunt rape-revenge story that leans heavily and sometimes effectively on its sweeping landscapes, aesthetic violence, nods to Sergio Leone and what comes across as an overt debt to Jia Zhang-ke’s “Touch of Sin.”

The first act unfolds at the small, isolated home where Marlina (a restrained, often opaque Marsha Timothy) lives with a dog, livestock and the mummified corpse of her husband. The animals mostly stay outdoors while the husband’s swaddled corpse is inside, propped against the wall in a seated position, open hands flanking his head as if in permanent deep thought. (A grave outside the house points to another death, one revealed later.) Marlina lives simply and presumably on the yield from her pigs, goats and chickens, although the director, Mouly Surya, doesn’t spend much time on Marlina’s ordinary life. What interests Surya is violence and its aftermath, which she visually plots with geometric precision.

Violence enters with a stranger, later identified as a bandit named Markus (Egi Fedly). Swaggering into Marlina’s house uninvited, he immediately makes himself at home, demanding food and announcing that he and his friends will also rape her. A small group of men arrive later and, like Markus, insist that Marlina feed them. The entire interlude passes by quickly, with a mounting sense of dread. Surya stages most of the invasion indoors, creating a sense of entrapment; there’s no place for Marlina to hide, no place for her to run. Surya also imbues the episode with a slightly stiff, vague theatricality that suggests that each character is playing his or her designated role.

By the end of Act 1, Marlina has been brutally victimized, but most of her assaulters are now dead. When Act 2 — “The Journey” — opens, she is on the move and carrying Markus’ severed head like a market watermelon. After a chat with a pregnant neighbor, Novi (Dea Panendra), who has troubles of her own (and remains remarkably unfazed by the grisly head), Marlina pushes on and the story morphs into a road movie with Western flavor. On foot, by bus and on horseback, she travels into a rugged, depopulated world, heading toward hoped-for justice as the tale meanders and pauses. Violence and its threat reverberate throughout, punctuated by an occasional Ennio Morricone-like wah-wah-waaah.

Working with cinematographer Yunus Pasolang, Surya gives “Marlina” a stark, steady, captivating look that keeps you largely engaged even when the story and your attention drift. The visuals and especially the locations do a lot of work, pulling you in with their unadorned natural beauty. Surya smartly foregrounds all that comeliness and every so often folds in a long shot that turns the characters into doll-like figures, a downsizing that gestures toward a nature vs. culture dynamic, maybe. She opens a lot of interpretive room for the viewer — mostly through ambiguity and the withholding lead performance — a strategy that can be liberating but here too often feels like mannerism.

Additional Information:

“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts”

Not rated. In Indonesian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.