Thursday, March 29, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

With its pair of breakout feature film debuts by director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen (the Olsen twins’ younger sister), Martha Marcy May Marlene displays two new bona fide talents on the scene.  This dark drama simultaneously takes its viewers inside an increasingly creepy cult in rural upstate New York and inside the tortured mind of one of its escaped members as she tries to readjust to life outside the farm.  As the dangers of being in this cult become clearer, the film’s tone gets ever darker and Olsen’s stunning performance increases intensity.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those films that left me with a feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach by the time the credits roll, but when that feeling arises from such a well-made film it is always a good thing.

Elizabeth Olsen is asked to carry this film on her shoulders, and there is no doubt that she can handle such a task.  As the title suggests, Olsen’s character assumes numerous identities that all have major problems.  We are introduced to this character as she is making her escape through woods with the other cult members calling out the name, “Marcy May.”  Yet she is “Martha” when we hear her panicked phone conversation to reconnect with the sister, Lucy, whom she has abandoned (“Marlene” is the pseudonym all the female cult members use when answering the phone).  Soon Martha is attempting to recover at Lucy and her husband’s lavish lake house in Connecticut, but the years of the cult’s indoctrination make leaving behind Marcy May a difficult strain.

Martha Marcy May Marlene’s structure further blends the distinctions between the different identities Olsen’s character is struggling with.  The film begins at the convergence between Martha and Marcy May, at the moment she escapes the cult.  However, from there we seamlessly weave back and forth between the two time periods.  As Martha assimilates back into the more civilized world we are taken to the day she enters the cult and given her new identity, Marcy May, by the hauntingly calm cult-leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).

Coming from a troubled past, life on Patrick’s free-love communal farm seems very inviting at first.  However, we saw her panicked state when the film opened and instinctively know there is something terrible going on underneath the surface.  Sean Durkin cuts between Martha’s deteriorating psychological state at her sister’s home with the sexual and physical violence she had grown accustomed to in the cult (until it reached a tipping point).  Sometimes the editing is so subtle and two the story arcs are so comparable that the viewer needs time to catch up and figure out which time period we are watching; it is a very effective trick and a powerful one.  The once peaceful life of Patrick’s cult becomes a terrifying existence just as the peaceful reprieve at Lucy’s lake house leads to a terrifying mental breakdown.  The physical and psychological toll that Martha/Marcy May endures is so great that the path the film takes in its third act is quite exhausting.

There is no denying that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a heavy film, but it is one in which the weight is worth the challenge.  It is haunting.  It is beautiful.  It is surreal.  And it leaves many blanks for the viewer to reflect upon and fill in.  But there is so much to enjoy.  Elizabeth Olsen is a force of nature as her character navigates through her brutal life.  As is John Hawkes, who is so calm and peaceful that only make him more hideous.  Every minute of this film has haunting subtleties that left me both mesmerized and disgusted, and I couldn’t wait to watch it again to investigate further.  Upon a second viewing, some of the ambiguities become clearer while some remain wide open, but the intrigue remains.  Martha Marcy May Marlene beautifully shows how cults can calmly unleash their horror on impressionable young people and how hard it is to then leave that impression behind.  This is one excellent movie.

Mark it 8.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked the psychological insights of this movie, and I agree that Elizabeth Olson makes a striking debut. I just couldn't shake the feeling, though, that the movie did such a great job of creating an ominous atmosphere only to fail to follow through with a solid ending. That said, I understand that the lasting foreboding mood was intended, so I'm kind of torn. When the movie ended, I found myself surprised because I expected something more definitive to happen one way or the other. As it is, it feels like half a film (albeit a good half). I'd give this one a 6 if I had such a blog. One important fun fact: this movie adds more evidence to my theory that actors from Deadwood always travel in pairs (in this case, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes).