(This review was originally published on October 28, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins as a quiet, unsettling psychological thriller that plants a seed of apprehension within its eerie first minutes and patiently grows into something considerably more terrifying. We see a young woman emerge from a cabin with a backpack, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in an attempt to elude an unseen threat. As she darts stealthily into the woods, we hear a man’s voice calling after her, “ Marcy! Marcy May!” The man eventually finds her at a diner, where he calmly tries to persuade her to return with him. When she refuses, he leaves her unscathed.
Or so it would appear. Somewhere along the way, Sean Durkin’s exploration of mental fragility develops into a cerebral horror story, one imbued with the stress and realism of emotional enslavement, uncertainty and paranoia.
The film, for which writer/director Durkin received Best Director at Sundance this year, is immersed in the emotional aftermath of a young woman’s traumatic experience with a cult in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, an impressionable young soul whose naivety lands her in a community of self-sustaining, establishment-denouncing hippie types who live under the aegis of a psychotic polygamist named Patrick (Oscar nominee John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”).
Martha’s story is told in two alternating timelines: the present day in which she struggles to re-acclimate to society after seeking refuge with her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, “New Year’s Eve”), and the account of her life as Marcy May, a haunting retrospective that unravels through a series of flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations.
In the present day, the siblings struggle to find common ground after Lucy responds to Martha’s cryptic phone call and brings her back to their summer home, a bucolic lake property in Connecticut that she rents with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, “The Big C”). Three hours from where she was picked up in New York, Martha seems disoriented, ethereal and slightly detached from reality. Her behavior becomes as troubling as the vague explanation for her two-year absence (a boyfriend in the Catskills, she tells them). Lucy’s concern for her sister’s wavering mental state continues to grow as Martha withdraws, but what Lucy doesn’t realize is that Martha believes she’s being watched.
“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” Martha asks her sister.
At the core of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is an examination of mental illness, the impact of post traumatic stress, and a cry for help that is tragically answered by a culture that feeds on vulnerability. Elizabeth Olsen has undoubtedly leapfrogged the acting careers of her older twin sisters (yes, those Olsens)with a fearless and compelling performance that rivals the psychotic turns of seasoned veterans like Natalie Portman in the hallucinatory “Black Swan”.
But what drives Olsen’s character is the stirring portrayal of the cult patriarch by John Hawkes. As the story delves into Martha’s mysterious past, we meet Patrick, a rail thin man whose minimalist ideals and way of life appeal to her fledgling sensibilities. Patrick seems like a pacifist at first, generous, compassionate and full of the vague wisdom you’d find in a fortune cookie. “It’s as much yours as it is mine,” he tells Martha as he welcomes her into their ostensibly tranquil society. “You look like a Marcy May.”
Sean Durkin finds the film’s tone quickly and a sense of dread is triggered even before we understand why, in part because its ambiguous aspects are used as a tool instead of a copout. One of the three founders of Borderline Films (including “MMMM” producers Antonio Campos and Josh Mond), Durkin creates a rare example of contemporary suspense that is as tightly wound as a Hitchcock thriller and as disturbing as Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”.
As Martha’s flashbacks takes us through life at the commune, we begin to see the red flags; the men eating before the women (who huddle in the kitchen waiting for them to finish), the women all bunking in one room, the emphasis on ‘cleansing’ (a warning sign as blatant as if there were copious amounts of Kool Aid in the cupboard), and the instructions to answer the phone as ‘Marlene Lewis.’ None of the children are female, and Martha often wonders where several of the older folks go at night (a later scene is eerily reminiscent of 2008′s nail-biter “The Strangers”).
Durkin breathes a 70′s exploitation vibe into these scenes at the compound, a place I imagine would feel a lot like Woodstock if inhabited by the Manson family. The supporting cast is near perfect, from the easily influenced mind of Watts (Brady Corbet), Patricks’s protegé who is eager to please his messiah, to Sarah (Julia Garner), another example of innocence lost to Patrick’s insane sense of righteousness and his non-consensual ‘initiation’ rituals.
Like Charles Manson, Patrick is painted as both intelligent and insane during the revelatory journeys into Martha’s damaged conscience. John Hawkes’ portrayal of the cult leader is calm and terrifying, and his insanity is gradually exposed in well placed doses of emotional complexity. Hawkes manages to convey power and control while also hinting at jealousy and insecurity, from passively manipulating his flock to the haunting dedication he sings to Marcy May. Even the Ivan Illich book on his nightstand subtly reinforces that he is an educated man, a self-proclaimed philosopher who with each soft-spoken word becomes more intimidating.
What makes “Martha Marcy May Marlene” exceptionally creepy is the film’s unfaltering adhesion to Martha’s fragile mental state as her perception of the world becomes progressively distorted. Every moment feels like it has a hair-trigger, each more sensitive than the last. Durkin’s lingering frames feed the constant apprehension as Martha’s erratic behavior in the present day mirrors the growing intensity of her flashbacks, and we begin to question the line between lucidity and delusion as her paranoia gets the best of her. Because fear of the unknown always outweighs the pieces of the puzzle, we never get outside of what Martha believes to be real.
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Antonio Campos, Borderline Films, Brady Corbet, Elizabeth Olsen, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Josh Mond, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Movie Review, Sarah Paulson, Sean Durkin, this is that