Mouly Surya (director)
93 mins (length)
25 April 2018 (released)
25 April 2018
From the first few notes of the opening trumpet melody, Marlina the Murderer reveals itself as a western. But even from that first shot, there are hints that this isn’t going to be cowboys drinking whisky, having shoot-outs and flirting with prostitutes. Marlina is a widow still living with the dead body of her husband. When a gang of men arrive at her remote house, looking to rob and rape her, she does all she can to stop them, fulfilling the prophecy set out in the film’s spoiler ridden title. But this isn’t the pivotal moment of Mouly Surya’s Indonesian language drama, it is merely the set-up.
The first act revels in this set-up, deliciously slow in building Marlina through silence and pain. She is the classic protagonist of American cinema: her righteousness coupled with a will to do what she knows is necessary recalls, amongst others, High Noon’s Marshal Will Kane. Marsha Timothy is perfectly cast as Marlina, a role demanding stoicism and strength. The climactic moment of the act somehow seems to nod to both Sharon Stone’s steamy dispatch in Basic Instinct, and Atticus Finch’s put down of the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird. The script, written by Surya with Rama Adi and Garin Nugroho, poses the question of whether Marlina is indeed acting for self preservation, or if there is something more just under the surface.
As the second act announces itself, Marlina eases comfortably into the Eastwoodian ‘Stranger’ persona. Trotting over the hill atop stallion, shimmering in the heat, Surya frames Marlina as the hero of a thousand stories, riding for justice. A modern artist with a clear love for the genre, Surya expertly dismantles the classic western, discarding outdated tropes but retaining style. Travelling through the breathtakingly shot Indonesian landscape, Marlina seeks acceptance, or perhaps condemnation, for her actions.
The clear intentions of this quest are derailed by the introduction of a heavily pregnant woman Marlina meets on the road, Novi (Dae Panendra). The third act pulls focus away from Marlina in favour of Novi, preventing the character enlightenment proposed earlier in the script. This is accentuated by the arrival of a ghostly presence following Marlina, a reminder of her decision that she never has time to come to terms with. This inclusion does, however, allow for a simple refrain Ennio Morricone would be proud of; as intriguing and tension building as his harmonica theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. The road movie template adopted by the middle of the film unfortunately leaves characters underdeveloped: hugely influential characters appear along the way before being left behind. This only detracts from Marlina’s development, and it is a shame to see her fail to resolve her feelings for what she has done.
Just as the eventual arrival of Frank Miller signals the beginning of a potentially fatal crescendo for Marshal Kane, Marlina’s fourth act positions her to face everything she has been running away from. Despite every twinge of satisfaction the ending might provide, there is a lingering sense of predictably. Of all the westerns Surya is paying tribute to, upon reflection it is clear to see Unforgiven as the film’s greatest reference point. Like William Munny, Marlina’s journey is one of self redefinition – to discard the life she knows and adapt to her future. Surya’s film is best when it recognises this, but it falls just short of pushing Marlina into these realms of self discovery. Still, the number of stylish nods to the genre will impress, and the reinvention is both genius and necessary. Shame there’s no shootout though.