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.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Hard Candy

Hard Candy
Directed by: David Slade
Written by: Brian Nelson (screenplay)
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, and Odessa Rae

Frankenstein’s Monster has taken many forms since its inception in Mary Shelley’s novel.  A monument to its creator’s sins, the original incantation runs amok strangling and killing villagers; he is never spoken of by the doctor, and that is the source of his madness. Hard Candy reminded me of Frankenstein at its core, but it wears its film influences a little lighter.

Connoisseurs of horror will immediately draw parallels to the gruesome if meditative late 90s Japanese horror film Audition, but many will go straight for a teen version of Saw.  Hard Candy is all of these, and at the same time stakes a territory of its own. 

Ellen Page takes on one of the riskiest roles a budding teen actress can take in this industry: an interesting one.  She plays Hayley Stark, a seemingly flirtatious young girl who chats with an older man named Jeff (Patrick Wilson) on the internet and arranges a meet-up. The initial scenes focus on their Meet Cute, but here it would be more aptly titled a Meet Creepy. 

After going back to their apartment and consuming screwdrivers and exchanging further banter, the horror thrills start to set in.  Audition was a caustic, meditative look at subtle sexism’s festering beneath the surface of Japanese culture.  Hard Candy would be its rampaging, American id.  Though no single scene in this film is more violent than the climax of Audition, the tension is ratcheted up constantly, extending the Japanese film’s third act to fill nearly an entire film.

Because it’s so long, we see through the now-thinly veiled layers of psychosis in Hayley.  Page expertly keeps audience members guessing, and her performance rotates between justifiable anger and sheer madness.  We as viewers want to sympathize with her at first, and it is in that constant back-and-forth loyalty that director David Slade finds his momentum.  Choosing allegiances in a film has rarely been so difficult, and ultimately, pointless.  That is the point.

Hayley claims to be taking vengeance for all the girls Jeff has harmed.  With a palette of enhanced colors (especially the reds), she wanders this pedophile filmmaker’s house exposing his every secret with glee.  These are the best scenes because they are effective at turning the tables without going too far, which Hard Candy inevitably does.

I suppose you could read this movie as a comment on the torture porn boom, one where those filmmakers are pedophiles and screenwriter Brian Nelson is the avenging angel.  In most of these movies, Hayley would be the victim.  The movie doesn’t play that trick tongue-in-cheek, and as a result starts to overstay its welcome even clocking in under 2 hours.

You’d think a man would learn his lesson after being castrated, but alas, she must go take a shower and allow him time to realize what’s actually happened to him, escape and continue the movie for more now-pointless rounds of torture.

That faux castration scene is played to such precision that the pointlessness is even further emphasized.  Slade structures the scene like the rest of the film, sequences unfolding in real time broken up by time lapses, but his control here is more measured.  He keeps the scene moving by doing several creative pans that don’t go to the other side of the room, but to a completely different angle.  You’ll start by surveying Jeff’s bound body from the side, and a pan will take you over Hayley’s shoulder to see his front.

The varying perspectives in these shots bring up another point that needs to be made: there are no varying perspectives in the characters.  Slade’s directing is completely competent, even semi-nuanced given the story, but the screenplay doesn’t dig deep enough.  This is a revenge parable whose motives don’t make us sympathize enough with Hayley to justify her brutal means.  She symbolizes something, and that is meant to be enough, but it isn’t.

Those faults aside, Hard Candy is an overall success because the actors transport us into a flawed world.  Wilson plays Jeff as a man with no options that garners sympathy because of what is happening to him and not who he is.  Though not a lot of blood is spilled (none, really), the film can come off as too much.  That is the work of a skilled director who was ultimately just doing his job.

Page and Wilson weren’t just doing this for the paycheck, because roles like these are risky.  Page, as we all know, went on to critical fame to play Juno, another teen with word vomit who is pursued by an older man.  She handles that one a little more tongue-in-cheek.

Grade: B-