Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts arrives on American screens just weeks after the last revisionist international rape-revenge feature, Coralie Fargeat’s passionately grisly Revenge. Fargeat’s film emphasized the brutal work of killing and built to a slapstick suspense sequence in which the hero — still nearly nude days after being assaulted — chases a crime boss around a kitchen as slick in his blood as the Double Dare set was with green slime. Revenge offered every vicious thrill of its genre while inviting you to parse the sinfulness for your own enjoyment: Were you getting off or celebrating her strength?
Marlina, a meditative neo-Western, surveys Indonesian hills and men’s dehumanization of women without indulging in splattery fantasy. Here revenge is just more work — a woman’s work, at that. We meet Marlina (Marsha Timothy) in the cabin home she now shares with the corpse of her husband, a skeletal presence we see in the shadows, sitting on the floor propped against a wall. There are shades of The Odyssey and any number of spaghetti Westerns when a local tough (Egy Fedly) strides onto her hardwoods and tells her to make him some tea. He also expects dinner, for himself and six more men, all of whom, he tells her, plan to have their way with her that night.
Favoring stillness and the sounds of wind and birds, Surya establishes Marlina’s position with quiet power. Any step she takes creaks through her home, where she has no place to hide, now that the men have crowded in; we may enjoy the rugged beauty of the exterior shots, all humped vistas of golden grass and jags of stone, but there’s terror in them, too. There isn’t a car or any other houses in sight, and Marlina’s small homestead is barely on a road. Where could she go? Even scarier is the matter-of-fact flatness of the men’s demands. They claim her the way prospectors might a promising patch of rock, as if she’s a resource that became fair game the second no other dude’s guarding it. It doesn’t even occur to them that she might resist.
Marlina isn’t sadistic — at least, it isn’t for long. It only takes the crafty Marlina a reel or two to escape her immediate danger. Her handling of the invaders proves satisfying, their deaths arriving with startling crashes, though she does not emerge unscathed or unviolated. (She loses her livestock, too.) And while Fargeat gave us a hero who, through bloody work and self-surgery, emerged by film’s end as a new, stronger woman, Surya’s story is eminently more practical. The final scenes reveal, movingly, how this crime shapes the rest of her life, but most of the film concerns the immediate aftermath. For Marlina, saving herself first results in much more shit she has to do. Timothy tempers Marlina’s righteous fury with a sense of stunned awakening, revealing a woman surprised at what she’s capable of doing, unwilling to let go of what she knows is right, but also methodical in her handling of the situation.
Rather than epic or thrilling, justice becomes an errand, an extension of domestic work. Her first problem: the corpses now sprawled throughout her home. Her second: how to get to town to make the case to the authorities that the killing was justified. So, holding a machete in one hand and a severed head in the other, she makes her way down the dirt tracks to the bus stop. Thus begins another odyssey, one alternately comic and distressing, a study of her world’s response to her refusal to be treated as property. She has to use the machete surprisingly early, pressing it to the throat of the bus driver just to secure herself a ride. Most of the other passengers — the men — all flee, even though there won’t be another bus for an hour.
We watch that bus, a large open-air truck, snake across the peaks. The photography, usually stationary, is something to relish, the landscapes worth getting lost in. Even as Marlina is in motion, the engine roaring, Surya and cinematographer Yunus Pasolang maintain the film’s sense of beautiful stasis. The camera is still, the world unchanging. She rides the bus, clutching her rapist’s head, and at every bend in the road we encounter women having to face men who won’t listen to them or trust them or even think twice before hitting them. (One welcome respite finds the childless Marlina caring, briefly, for a little girl with no father.) The result is a film of uneasy grandeur, at once offhand and gently mythic, suggesting that what’s shocking is not the presumption of the men who try to possess Marlina — but that Marlina fought back and then expects some kind of justice.
Some men are chasing her, of course, but the suspense in the film’s second half lies not in their pursuit but in her arrival. Will the sheriff believe that her violent disruption of what seems an established order is just? The answer is a devastating surprise — and rings of truth.