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Hollywood is in a state of semi-suspended upheaval at the moment. The patriarchal cycle of aggression, shame, and silence has been exposed, at least on the surface. The process has thrown crucial light onto depictions of brutality against women in film, which often seem exploitational or punishing for no reason simply due to the characters’ gender. Stories involving these elements are now being told through the lens of female filmmakers, however, and this year has seen a number of powerful trope inversions. Mouly Surya brings us what might be the most singular example of this from Indonesia, in the form of Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts.

As the evocative title suggests, Surya unfolds her film over four distinct stages. The first sets itself up like a quiet Peckinpah film: seven bandits rob widowed Marlina, force her to cook them dinner, and prepare to assault her. Marlina is more resourceful than they expect, however, and she manages to poison some before beheading her attacker. When she attempts to notify the police of the crime in the film’s second act, sending her across miles of wilderness with a band of funny, dangerous, and insightful characters, her search for justice becomes a fight to survive.

Surya’s third feature embodies the classic western in style as well as narrative. Cinematographer Yunus Pasolang shoots the Indonesian seaside with dusty, vivid texture, while the folky music plucks along with a paced, driven rhythm. Yet the screenplay and cast—led confidently by Egy Fedly—interact with the world in a stilted, sometimes inept, manner. The ultimate effect is a spaghetti western shoved through a meat grinder by the Coen Brothers, though even that falls short of capturing the film’s complete aura. Its core is dark and suspenseful, but hilarious at times; even the ghost of Marlina’s headless victim earns a few laughs, because Surya displays him so frankly.  

The sparse tone that the film adopts can portray some central scenes as slow and purposeless, but the cast is strong enough to lead us through them. Of course, the assault itself is uncomfortable to watch, but Surya’s blunt camera displays it without any sense of exploitation. Her blunt portrayal of this fable gives it humor, heart, and realism at once, though the approach is anything but traditional.

Through Surya’s guidance, Marlina’s story becomes something like an exposé of man’s ineptitude and greed, leaving the female characters to fend for themselves. The bandits are bumbling and animalistic—a supporting character’s husband believes women can control their time of birth. Even the police are incompetent, playing sloppy ping-pong instead of chasing criminals. Marlina, on the other hand, faces life-threatening trauma with cleverness and strength. The film’s ultimate effect is one of triumph—several moments are so glorious that they earned applause at this reviewer’s screening. It isn’t a perfect work, and the slack sections may frustrate some viewers unforgivably, but such a fierce, exciting vision can’t go unnoticed. 

With her Coen-esque approach to a classically mythic plot, Surya crafts a unique experience that also serves as catharsis. It portrays a woman’s fight in an absurdist and ferocious manner, anchored by sharp style and an ethereal central performance. The story seems to suggest that sometimes revenge is necessary, and resilience can lead to freedom from an oppressive world—if only one keeps their (morbid) sense of humor.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

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