Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene Movie Review

Marth Marcy May Marlene is a grim, almost nihilistic portrait of a young woman indoctrinated by a cult with a powerfully coercive leader. The title refers to the woman’s three names she goes by. Her real name, used only by her sister and brother-in-law, is Martha. Marcy May is the name given to her by Patrick, just one of many ways in which he establishes a paternalistic stronghold over the young women on his farm and a method of stripping their old identity from them to mold them into his personal harem. Marlene is the name they all use when answering the phone.


The film begins with Martha sneaking away from the farm early in the morning. The way it’s established we on’t know under what circumstances she and the others live, although there is some hint when we see the men eating dinner first while the women wait until they’re finished, watching all the time like Dickensian orphans. But a mood of dread is created by a musical score (written by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) that consists primarily of long low-frequency tones and no melodic through-line, giving the impression of a horror film where something terrible is always about to transpire. So when Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen in an astounding debut performance) leaves and cuts through the woods pursued by several others we don’t know what to expect if she’s caught. Sean Durkin’s screenplay (he also directed the film) offers a genuinely suspenseful and surprising moment when one of the male underlings from the cult tracks her to a local diner.

Martha gets in touch with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), after a disappearing act that lasted two years and goes to live temporarily in her lakeside home in upstate New York. From here the pieces slowly get filled in, for the audience much more than for Lucy, as to where she’s been and what has happened to her. Flashbacks to Martha’s life in the cult are intercut throughout the present timeline with Lucy’s family.

The structure of having the two timelines play simultaneously allows for interesting and often quite subtle reveals. Martha’s casual rejection of a natural kale vitamin drink gets its explanation later when we see a similar-looking drink used to drug the young women before they are the lucky (in the twisted minds of the cult’s followers) recipients of their first cleansing (a non-imposing term substituted for rape that allows the women’s psyches to remain intact at the start of their indoctrination). Martha’s curiosity about the sounds of objects falling on the roof has a more darkly sinister provenance, one that eventually holds the key to why Martha left Patrick’s clutches.

The real power of the cult is revealed in Martha’s behavior while staying with Lucy and Ted. The menacing ways of Patrick and his followers continue to prevail as Martha grows evermore paranoid that someone will come for her. In much the same way that Take Shelter blurs the line between delusion and reality, Martha Marcy May Marlene occasionally makes us question whether we’re witnessing a flashback or some hellish nightmare in Martha’s attempt at regaining control of her life.

If you want to dig a little deeper into Durkin’s story, you might find Lucy and Ted representing upper middle class Americans (though Ted is played by the British Hugh Dancy) who spend their money on increasingly unnecessarily (to outsiders) lavish things like speed boats, large vacation homes (“Why do you have such a big house for only two people,” Martha asks), and posh clothes. There’s more than a slight reference to the class warfare that’s been raging in this country since the start of the recession. Martha and her friends in the cult live humble existences, working together in community. Were it not for the imbalance of power between the males and females on the farm, they would be an otherwise normal hippie commune, whose members occasionally break into the homes of the wealthy to “look around” and occasionally steal valuable trinkets because selling hand knit blankets in town is hardly enough to support a dozen or so people.

Elizabeth Olsen’s performance perfectly captures that feeling of uncertain trepidation Martha embodies. She’s a woman who almost always looks uncomfortable not only in her own skin, but in her surroundings in general. Olsen is an actress who can be in complete control of a scene and then suddenly shift to being entirely at the whim of forces around her. Just as remarkable is John Hawkes as the cult’s father figure. He exhibits a similar quite menace to the performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in last year’s Winter’s Bone. Here he is more obviously gaunt and wiry and much more charismatic – a prerequisite for any effective cult leader.

Like Take Shelter, the film leaves no easy answers, dropping in a similarly ambiguous ending that may be open to various interpretations. The one thing that is certain is that both Curtis in Take Shelter and Martha here, the pains of internal turmoil do not go away easily. The gathering storm in Take Shelter provides a clearer parallel with the bleak outlook for our current economic prospects than Martha Marcy May Marlene, but in both films we can see a possible trend in films this year pointing out that we can not easily outrun our past and nor can we be particularly hopeful about what lies ahead.

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