The holy love child of the Coen brothers and Sergio Leone, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is the type of fresh inventive genre take that winds up an art-house classic.
With the sweltering-hot countryside of modern day Indonesia standing in for the Spaghetti West, Marsha Timothy stars as the titular character. Recently widowed, Marlina racked up debts paying for her husband’s funeral. As a result, she is visited by Markus, a quietly menacing loan shark.
Whipping out a ukulele-like instrument, he coldly informs Marlina that his gang intend to take her money, livestock and ‘if they have time’ rape her. However, she has other plans. Without spoiling, what transpires leads her on an odyssey, both physical and personal, encountering unlikely allies and machete wielding villains.
Described by it’s debut director Mouly Surya as a ‘Satay Western’, the film draws upon a diverse blend of influences. It has a setting, silent protagonist and most notably, a soundtrack by Yudhi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli, that wouldn’t be out of place in the Dollars Trilogy. Yet, it also possesses a layer of dark comedy in the vein of Fargo (there’s also an implicit reference to Barton Fink), linking it to the Coens.
What keeps the film from feeling derivative is it’s setting. It’s exciting to see these archetypal plot-beats and eccentricities playing out in a cinematic environment Western audiences don’t typically see on screen.
The film tackles misogyny in Indonesian culture. The males that populate Marlina are brutish and violent. They’re the type that spout phrases like ‘women you all love playing the victim,’. These aren’t just the gang members. The police appear utterly ineffectual. When Marlina comes to them to report her assault, they are too busy playing ping-pong (very Coen-like) to listen to her. When she eventually convinces them she’s been raped, they believe her. Yet, they won’t investigate until they wait at least a month for funds to purchase rape test equipment.
Surya takes these fears and dangers women face around the world and turns them into a feminist parable. Marlina and her 10-month-pregnant side-kick Novi (Dea Panendra) become heroes vanquishing toxic masculinity from their lives.
In blending style and substance, Mouly Surya has crafted an inventive debut, the type that will establish her as a cult figure and a name to watch. Between her and Xavier Legrand’s debut film Custody currently showing, it’s been a great month for first time feature filmmakers.