AFF Review: Sean Durkin's Tense Drama 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
by Jeremy Kirk
October 22, 2011
Filmmaker Sean Durkin builds his debut cinematic house that is Martha Marcy May Marlene with unsettling hallways, firm base, and a precision in the walls he pulls from his actors to create a magnificent work of dream and disquiet. Aided by the punch of its fine actors, the film proves what a gifted storyteller can bring to the simple technique of creatively shooting fine actors delivering powerful dialogue. It's a stunning film about being lost, about the myth of normalcy, and the horrors that come when the shadowed predators who take advantage reveal themselves. Elizabeth Olsen in the starring role gives a memorable performance, one that runs a whole gamut of emotions and character motivations, and one that is sure to be the beginning of a fruitful career.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a girl who has been away from her family, notably her older sister, Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, for the better part of two years. Martha has been a member of a cult deep in the Catskill Mountains, but she ran away and is making an attempt to get back into her sister's life. Through flashbacks and dreams, we see the progression of Martha's involvement in the cult, the way it builds then breaks then builds again until it becomes outright dangerous. Martha's and her sister's and sister's boyfriend's begin to rattle as the dangers in the young girl's mind begin to take shape in this new world she wants to create for herself. But the debate of whether that danger is palpable or just deep-rooted paranoia creates a tension in her newly found home, one that could lead to harsh consequences.
Both Durkin's screenplay is dark, dream-like in its structure, the way it moves from the past to the present and back again. No line of dialogue is wasted, no character moments are empty. Everything works to create two worlds and the unsteady bridge that connects them. His direction delivers on that screenplay with equal precision. His composition and camera work evoke a feeling of nostalgia, washed out earthy tones that give the film both the atmosphere of a dream state and of a gritty reality.
The way he connects these two worlds, Martha's time in the cult and her time after with her sister, are sometimes obvious. Martha picks up a glass in one reality and brings a glass to her mouth in the other. Obvious as they are, though, these transitions work towards the ultimate goal of setting the audience in discomfort, the twinge that makes you squirm in your seat even when nothing overt is occurring on the screen. Durkin proves with this one film his skill in creating that tension in the audience. With minimal action, but some outstanding sound design, he puts us at unrest. When violence occurs, it often does so off-screen, either just outside the frame or just after his film cuts to black, to the point that we, like Martha, aren't even sure what we're seeing most of the time. But that doesn't stop us from being locked on the reality, or possible reality, of any situation Durkin explores.
Olsen is a large part of that grip Martha Marcy May Marlene has on its audience. Martha is an ambiguous character, one whose motivations and mind-set are in question through nearly the entirety of the film's run time. Olsen delivers this ambiguity with a healthy dose of empathy. Dream-like as the film is, the actress appears to be sleep-walking through much of it, a statement that usually points to a lack of artistic merit. Not true with Olsen, who even in her dazed and confused states forces the audience to lock in on her. Even when we don't understand her, we feel for Martha, want her to be protected, and that sense of compassion for a character we hardly even comprehend is all due to Olsen's awards worthy performance.
As the cult leader, John Hawkes gives an equally riveting performance. As he did in last year's Winter's Bone, Hawkes creates a character both subtle and sweet but with that overall shade of menace that makes him all the more memorable. Even when we understand what his character's motivations are in Martha Marcy May Marlene, even after that feeling of menace turns to outright danger, there's a charisma that he brings to it. You realize how he can make people do what he makes them do in this film and how, even after Martha gets away from him and the cult, his presence has been implanted into her mind forever.
That's what Martha Marcy May Marlene is ultimately about—assimilation—the integration of something into its new home. Whether that's Martha trying to integrate outside of the cult or the teachings the cult integrates into Martha's mind, teachings and beliefs that haunt her long after she has gotten away from them, the idea is brushed over everything in this film. The ghosts of this girl's past are catching up with her, but the reality of how much damage they can do physically as opposed to mentally are the questions that need answered. Durkin's film raises these questions and gives us an idea of an answer, the kind of ambiguity that leaves you guessing about what you saw or what you think you saw long after you see Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's one of the most haunting and challenging films of the year, and it's a first effort from a storyteller who is sure to have many more equally challenging stories to tell.
Jeremy's Austin Film Fest Rating: 8.5 out of 10