Saturday, October 22, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

At times ponderous, but achingly haunting and utterly controlled, the tongue-twistingly titled new feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, a hit at this years Sundance Film Festival (where it won the directors prize for Sean Durkin), is a demanding and difficult sit.  Tense, unnerving and, and despite very little actual violence, nearly as frightening as any recent thriller.  Yet, what makes the film pop is it's even more unsettling character study of a raw and fragile young woman, unhinged and unraveled in her own identity.  For a film with so much visual and emotional dimension, the most demanding part of the mysterious Martha is that it's not at all concerned with tying up loose ends, for all it's questions, there's striking few answers.  It inevitably matters little however, as patient moviegoers will be allured by the striking mystery at it's core.  Most striking, behind the fact that a film can look so utterly accomplished and masterfully paced coming for a man on his first try, is the altogether astonishing and graceful magnitude of Martha Marcy May Marlene's leading lady-- Elizabeth Olsen, who will likely only suffer "younger sister to Olsen twins" press releases just this once.

The film starts in action, a young woman is running.  From what, we are not sure yet, to where, again, we are unclear (she likely is too.)  Anxious and scared, she makes a frantic phone call for help.  We learn her name is Martha (Olsen) and the phone call was made to her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who quickly picks up the nervous young girl, completely unknowing to what to expect to her or it.  Through careful explaining through seamlessly constructed flashbacks, Martha was taken in by a cult, a community of seemingly peaceful, free-loving spirits, whose streak of violence (both physically and emotionally) are carefully distilled through Martha's fragile psyche.  The cult, set on a farm in the Catskills, is ruled by a offbeat cad named Patrick (John Hawkes), whose soft, oddball charisma belie a Manson-like malevolence.  On first meeting, Patrick changes Martha's name to Marcy May, and is so coyly seductive about it, that she, and the audience, forget what a huge inappropriate invasion that really is; in essence, she's trapped before anything has happened.  There's precious little backstory for Martha, but what is surmised is an unhappy childhood, and lack of real family, a hint that Patrick picks up on and latches on to her with seeming comfort and compassion.  The films drifting from idyllic but troubled farmland cult Marcy May to familial but troubled Martha is what makes the film so enchanting, as memories pour out of her head, it awakens a haunting dreamscape for the film.  As the film goes deeper into the troubled, identity-less heroine, we are posed with more questions.

Martha has to essentially re-learn what it's like to be back in the civilized world-- her farmland beds were communal and preachings of Patrick are still engrained in her-- it's important that her sister is the first to hear her say "I'm a leader and a teacher" before we see the false-messiah's backstory of why she would have such a silly notion in her head.  What mounts is an escalating state of paranoia as wounder memories of her past begin to unfurl.  Durkin masterfully underplays this, but makes every specific sound cue or shot of Olsen count, which adds the potency and chilling final act.  Whether targeted or not by abandoning her "family," she is forever is doubt and in fear of always being on the run in some way, the wrestling of pine combs or wind or whatever forever keeps Martha tense as it evokes powerful and destructive memories of her past, and the abuse she escaped from.  There's even perhaps a case to be made as which world the shapeless Martha actually prefers-- it's not incidental that the cult-y farm is filmed as a peaceful, carved out Eden, versus the stiller and colder textures that make up Lucy's spacious but remote lakeside vacation home.

The most appealing reason to watch Martha Marcy May Marlene is the presence of Olsen, who in her first film, manages something completely compelling.  For the most part, she's soft and still, but distills so much nuance and expressiveness while doing very little.  She hits the notes of vulnerability, withdrawal, sadness and shapelessness with an almost alchemist precision and punctuated charm.  While under the spell of Patrick, she is seduced by his false gentleness, while at home with her worrying sister, she is shut down and spastic, the genuineness of both is eery and unnerving in its own right.  It's perhaps the stark exchanges with her sister that leave the sharpest impression, as neither are comfortable enough to have an actual conversion; it's what's unsaid that gravitates both Olsen and Paulson's performances, and what makes the painfully bluntness of words that spew out towards the end all the more pointed and piercing.  As for Hawkes, whose made a nifty career out of playing shifty folks, it's incredibly credible that Martha would follow.

What we're left with is more questions.  It hardly matters why Martha heeded to Catskills and joined her abusive cult, but the best thrill of the film is one that is best left unrevealed, for the final scenes of Martha Marcy May Marlene are terse and chilling, effective as both thriller and character study, and elusive to what shape this beguiling young woman will finally take.  In the end, that monster tongue-twister of a title is perhaps the most effective one for it's a film about a young woman in search of her true identity, not just with the world, or her family (real or fake), but with herself.  What matters more is the joy of the subtly unhinged work of a brash new actress, and the masterfully uneasy accomplishment of a new filmmaker, whose already set out a clear, fresh-eyed and hopeful identity for himself.  A-

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