Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene, the powerful feature debut of writer and director Sean Durkin, starring newcomer Elizabeth Olsen in the title role(s), is one of those films that seemingly comes out of nowhere and then is hard to shake for a while after. Its story and style are so unique and at first unfamiliar – it doesn't fit neatly into a particular genre – that it might not connect if not for the assured, nuanced hand of Durkin (who won Best Director in the Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), and the fully realized performance of Olsen in a demanding and complicated role.

The audience is first introduced to Olsen as Marcy May, setting a table for dinner on a communal farm in the Catskill Mountains. Things seem idyllic, though perhaps antiquated – only she slips away the next morning into a forest across the road, and hides in a ditch from the young women who pursue her. When she places a distraught call in town, the woman on the other end is surprised and concerned to hear from Martha. And so this young, seemingly delicate woman of two names is brought “home,” only it’s to a lake-side vacation home she’s never been to, owned by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) – and we learn Lucy is the only immediate family Martha has, and that Martha has been missing for two years.

As the film begins to seamlessly shift in time between Martha trying to reconnect with her sister (and “normal” life), and her trying to connect with a group that more and more clearly is a cult, small details help set the tone: on her first night in a room of her own, Martha still curls up on the edge of the bed; at breakfast she picks at her food like one trained to wait. As Martha slowly re-assimilates – finding it difficult as a spectrum of moments prompt her memory of her time in the cult – these little habits, or learned behavior, devolve into social tics as Lucy and Ted realize that Martha has undergone some sort of trauma, and the film reveals this in an increasingly disturbing way. (At the risk of spoilers, I do want to make clear that this isn’t a horror movie – something I couldn’t stomach – but it is, at times, horrifying.) We also see that Martha had to have some sort of reason to become involved with a small cult, both in leaving her family and joining a group of unknowns. The reliably excellent John Hawkes, nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in last year’s Winter’s Bone, goes a long way towards this as the cult-leader Patrick, as he’s charismatic and not to be underestimated.

There are a number of brilliant aspects to Martha Marcy May Marlene (and yes, the reason for the “Marlene” of the title is revealed), beyond the original story and character study, which are intriguing in their own right; it is how it is told that sets the film apart. In a culture now familiar with non-linear storytelling, the transitions between moments at the lake house and the farm are beautiful and eerie. (It reminded me of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, with Billy Pilgrim “unstuck in time,” a device that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. used partially as an exploration of the continuum of time and memory.) The editing by Zachary Stuart-Pontier is amazing – featuring some of the most effective cuts I’ve ever seen – with the audience expertly led into new psychological territory, or left uneasy to build tension and identify with Martha’s state. The striking cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes at once sets the two main locations apart but also finds commonalities, through framing and lighting, to serve the heady blend of past and present, suggesting that some of what we see may be influenced not only by Martha’s memory but also her trauma. In the importance of how this film is told (which is what cinema is about, really: the how, far more than the what/who/when/where/why), the technical elements are non-obtrusive, though – it is in the scripting, with the story, characters, and dialogue, that the films finds its energy. Though much can be read into the film, Durkin doesn’t set his sights as a treatise on, say, the diaphanous nature of memory in this situation; he is invested in the fundamentals of story but in an artistic manner, showing how Martha got to this point, through her interactions with Lucy and Ted in the present, and with Patrick and the other cult members in the near-past. The shifting in time allows for the audience to learn origins of certain behavior, while being kept just a few steps behind, without betraying their intelligence, so that each new scene is a surprise. The cult is portrayed as mysterious in the best sense, in terms of drawing in both Martha and the audience: there are no outward signs of oddness, no speeches about purpose, and it is only through certain acts, teased out as Martha’s paranoia grows, that any sort of collective psychology is alluded to.

As illusive as the cult is, it’s hard to encapsulate such a distinctive film as Martha Marcy May Marlene without spoiling certain elements, but it is without a doubt one of the most effective, disturbing films I’ve seen, and easily one of the best of the year.

[Published link: here]


  1. I do agree with the transitions, but I still found most of it to be more of a chore to watch. The slow pacing was really starting to become a problem for me. I just couldn't "get" into the movie.

    Good review though!

  2. I enjoyed your interpretation. It actually helped clarify a few things for me so thanks. But while I found John Hawkes to be excellent in the role, I didn't find him charismatic. He was incredibly creepy so I could never understand why people stuck around in that cult. Great review!!

  3. Thank you both!

    I think I used "charismatic" as a default - poor word choice. I certainly didn't mean "charming." There's *something* about him, which I assumed is seen by others, that we're not privy to. I respect that choice by the filmmakers.

    I certainly have my problems with getting into a movie, so I totally hear you. Hell, there's movies I love that I'm just not in the mood for sometimes, you know? Maybe I wouldn't have liked TOKYO STORY had I seen it on a different day.

    Thanks again! The internet is pretty cool!