REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin (screenplay)
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy

Many prominent American indies have started to favor the Before/After plot device.  Blue Valentine and the more recent We Need To Talk About Kevin are both examples of that style being used as a substitution for substance.  Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene shows that device finally being used in excruciatingly well-done ways.

Along with Margin Call, this film about a young woman traumatized by her time in a cult marks the best American writer/director debut of 2011.  Durkin’s films is decidedly less slick than J.C. Chandor’s drama about the financial collapse in 2008, but they both become unflinchingly honest if very different portraits of American identity.  The point of relation in this film comes from Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), whose strength after escaping the cult seems impossibly strong.

It is as it turns out, as her paranoia slowly begins to consume her while she lives with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and her arrogant British fiance (Hugh Dancy).  Martha won’t tell either of them what happened, mostly because she’s not entirely sure herself.  Durkin uses the flashbacks to the cult as a way of blurring her reality instead of using it just to make the film unique.

At first the cult members appear simply as creepy organic farmers, their leader Patrick (John Hawkes) seems an overly-charming patriarch.  Both we and Martha get a startling wake up call when she opens her eyes one night to find Patrick having sex with her.  Because Durkin shows her escaping in the beginning, though, things are expected to take a turn for the worse eventually.

Martha Marcy May Marlene gets its long-winded title from the names Martha assumes during it.  While in the cult, she is renamed Marcy May, and uses Marlene as an alias when she answers the phone.  Back at her sister’s house, only 3 hours away from her former life, she goes by Martha.

Identity crisis is at the heart of Durkin’s film, both on an individual level and a familial one.   When a group of people band together and share responsibilities of a household, are they not a family?  Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance no matter what her name is at the time.  She slowly strips away Martha’s defenses to show us someone who’s unsure what reality is.

Martha is a woman in search of belonging, a familiar character archtype that is subsequently pushed to the limit in this movie.  She is willing to put up with undesirable sex and more gender persecution at the compound, but when Patrick gives her a gun and tells her to shoot a sick cat and then another member of the cult, you can see her eyes shifting as she weighs what that belonging is really worth.

At her sister’s house, much of her behavior tunes us in to just how out of touch she is with the outside world.  She nonchalantly bathes nude, and walks into Lucy’s room and lays in her bed while she and her fiance are making love.  The grimy digital camera work and the low-key music create a decidedly creepy atmosphere in these scenes and the rest of the film even though most of it takes place in Lucy’s vacation house on a beach.

Because the film is so well-crafted and has such an empathy for its characters, the violent pattern it shares with a movie like David Fincher’s take on Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is easier to notice. Female-driven roles have found their way to the gutter by way of Bridesmaids, but the filth the women in all of these films endure is a far greater, far more sinister brand of filmmaking.

That being said, both films are far from exploitative, no matter how sexualized Lisbeth Salander may be in the American version.  In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin crafts a deeply moving portrait of a young soul trapped between present and past.  Martha’s soul is taken in at the prospect of finally belonging somewhere, but the cost she pays is too great, so she runs from them.  They’re inside her head, though, and that’s something she can’t run from.

Grade: B

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