Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, the latest film from Indonesian director Mouly Surya, is a surreal and existential Western. After debuting at Cannes in 2017 and stopping by TIFF during its international festival tour last fall, Surya’s film returns to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for a short theatrical run starting on Friday June, 29th.
Surya, an acclaimed filmmaker, tackles a typically-male dominated genre in a gracefully poetic style. She contrasts brightly-lit mountain-scapes with the dark interiors of rural homes, snack bars, lorries and police stations. There is a certain tranquility to all the settings throughout Marlina that recall the aesthetics of a still life painting. A wood fire crackles in a kitchen behind a row of muted multi-coloured ceramic pots. A mummified dead man sits cross-legged in the corner of a living room with a patterned blanket draped over his shoulders. A tree’s twisted branches reach out towards the sun as its rays refract light in all directions. A truck quietly inches up a winding road. Many of these shots are photographed with a wide focus, illustrating the great expanses that the film’s eponymous character must navigate in order to survive.
On the surface, Marlina the Murder in Four Acts is a revenge story. Marlina, played by Marsha Timothy, is visited in her isolated cabin by a group of armed brigands after the death of her husband. The unwanted visitors steal Marlina’s livestock, force her to cook for them, and then their leader says that they will all rape her as soon as they’re done eating. Marlina poisons the chicken soup and the group of men rapidly drop to the ground mid-meal. However, before the meal is served, the leader excuses himself from the table in order to wait for Marlina in the bedroom. After he forces himself on her, Marlina reaches for a machete and decapitates him. Marlina then packages his head as proof of the violation and proceeds to seek justice from the local police unit. Unfortunately, the police prove to be useless as the officer is reluctant to investigate the matter. Consequently, she must singularly navigate this traumatic and violent event all while still being pursued by affiliates of the gang that ambushed her in the first place. Along the way, she meets a pregnant neighbour, Novi, whom she forms a tender yet often wordless alliance with. Novi is then consumed into Marlina’s fight.
While the events of the film are marked by four distinct chapters (“The Robbery,” “The Journey,” “The Confession,” and “The Birth”), there is a heavily symbolic element that courses throughout the entire story – a substantial commentary on the role of women in society. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, the most obvious stylistic forebearer to Marlina, Surya seems to question the entire concepts of adventure, salvation, and revenge. Marlina does not travel continents to reveal sophisticated networks of assassins and spies, and she does not obtain fancy swords and outfits along the way. Instead, she is more or less stuck in the same predicament at the end of the film that she is at the beginning of it. Her husband is still dead, her child is presumed dead, her friends are few and far between, and the distance that she travels is no real distance at all. She must always watch her own back and the other women that she encounters throughout the film are all facing similar confinement at the hands of the patriarchy. There are many shots of the outside world through the inside of doorways, illustrating a certain captivity that one faces when oppressed. Though Marlina certainly appears powerful while carrying around a severed head on horseback, her situation is still tragic. While parading around as a weathered cowboy might have worked for the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, for someone who has lost as much as Marlina, no amount of stoic majesty can free her from the metaphysical shackles that bind her.
As Marlina, Timothy wears a dead-eyed stare on her face for most of the film. Her victories are not punctuated by whooping calls of triumph, rather they conclude with barely audible breaths or slight smiles of contentment. Thus, her performance hints at a much bleaker reality than what is depicted in many Western genre movies of the past. There is no exceptional triumph of good over evil, rather there is brief respite before the next hardship stakes its claim. Because, in the end, even with the promise of new life, the sun still rises and sets in the exact same directions over the same cruel world.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts begins its theatrical run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday June 29th, 2018. Buy your tickets here.