Friday, November 18, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Written and Directed By: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy
"There's no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist."

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a disturbing examination of a young woman's damaged psyche. Part psychological thriller and part quietly restrained family drama, the film is brimming with crackling tension that lies just under its surface.

When Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) suddenly reappears after a two year absence, her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy) struggle to reconnect with the strangely subdued young woman. Lucy suspects Martha has just escaped an abusive boyfriend, but doesn't press the matter -- she's just happy to have her sister home again. Little does Lucy know, but Martha has been under the influence of Patrick (John Hawkes), a Charles Manson-like cult leader, who runs a Catskills commune on an abandoned farm. As he surrounds himself with lost, lonely youngsters he randomly picks up (specifically women), Patrick subjects them to rituals of drug abuse and rape, threatening bodily harm to any who dares to leave his absurd "family."

Olsen gives the kind of breakthrough performance that most up-and-comers can only dream about. With her bizarre and inappropriate behaviour around her sister and brother-in-law, Martha experiences a confusion of identity. Life on the commune was rife with drugs and group sex -- therefore, returning to her old reality with her sister is not an easy transition. While on the commune she was given a new name ("You look like a Marcy May", says Patrick) and she was allowed a new lease on life after abandoning her sister after the death of their mother. Olsen gives a powerful performance, never quite allowing the audience inside the head of this strange, sad, lonely young woman. One minute she's sitting quietly, letting her hair fall over her eyes, and the next minute a powerful memory of her time spent on the commune rears its head and she lashes out at those around her. An unreliable narrator, we question the accuracy of Martha's memory. She even asks her sister at one point: "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?" Olsen perfectly portrays just how difficult reintegration can be after experiencing a personal trauma. It's the stuff Academy Award nominations are made of.

Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes
The supporting cast is just as compelling, especially Hawkes (a Best Supporting Actor nominee last year for Winter's Bone). Mesmerizing and downright creepy, Hawkes' Patrick is an enigma -- both terrifying and possessive.

Writer-director Sean Durkin, in his debut feature, has brilliantly constructed a fascinating commentary on the familial restrictions imposed on us by those we live with, despite our supposed free will. As Toronto Star critic, Peter Howell, wrote in his review of the film: "Durkin draws unmistakable analogies between the demands of two very different family groups, both of which claim to offer liberation of the mind and body yet deliver something far short of that." With a debut feature as excellent as Martha Marcy May Marlene, we should expect to see a lot more projects from Durkin in the near future.

The drained cinematography (beautifully lensed by Jody Lee Lipes) lends an oppressive feel to the film -- even when characters are outdoors you feel as if there is nowhere to run and danger lurks around every corner. It successfully visualizes for the audience the paranoia and altered reality Martha experiences. In Martha's eyes, the world around her is cold and isolating.

Some will likely grumble about the abrupt ending (it's amazing how many people still need films to tie together all the loose strings into a neat bow); however, the ambiguity of the final scene perfectly suits the overall tone of the film. It taps into the paranoia that Martha experiences, leaving the audience to come up with their own interpretation of what exactly happened to Martha (Marcy May Marlene).