GREAT FILMS: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA, 2012)
Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Sundance offerings can be like coming-of-age films: they tend to be remembered for the careers that they launched rather than their cinematic merits. Two years ago we had Winter's Bone, Debra Granik's drama which, while intriguing and atmospheric, would have fallen flat without the astounding central performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Having cut her teeth in independent cinema, Lawrence is now well on the way to cemented mainstream stardom, with her performances in X-Men: First Class and most recently The Hunger Games.At first glance, Martha Marcy May Marlene looks like it could be neither more nor less than this year's Winter's Bone. Certainly most of the hype has surrounded the central performance of Elizabeth Olsen, the younger and clearly more talented sister of twin starlets Mary-Kate and Ashley. But while Olsen's performance anchors the film, it offers so much more than just a future star, being an unnerving and deeply unsettling drama from first-timer Sean Durkin.Martha Marcy May Marlene may have a cumbersome title, but there is nothing remotely cumbersome about its pacing. Like a lot of Sundance efforts, most of the time is taken up with the characters interacting in situ, and in lesser festival efforts the action could quickly start going in circles. Durkin understands that and uses the flashbacks to vary the pace and keep us on our toes. His editing and choice of angles is so effective that we occasionally have to second-guess as to which part of the story we are seeing, which only increases the disturbing nature of the events.The film is at its most basic the study of a fractured and traumatised mind. Martha begins the film by escaping from some kind of compound through the woods and ringing her sister from a café. She is completely disorientated, not knowing where she is or even how she got there. As the film rolls on and more aspects of her past come to light, we begin to piece together her mental state and how she could possibly have arrived at such a point. But this is not a nuts-and-bolts thriller in which the psychoses of a character can be explained on the back of an envelope. The film is more open-ended and braver than that, seeking to humanise both parties to both terrorise and reassure.This desire to unnerve by being even-handed is reflected in both the nature of the compound and the arguments later in the film between Martha and her brother-in-law. All the women in the compound sleep in close proximity in the same room, wear plainer clothes and eat less food at different times to the men. Durkin shoots the scenes of them dressing and undressing with clinical detachment, refusing to pass judgement on them and letting the conditions speak for themselves. While his is not a documentarian approach, he is very careful not to let his personal feelings be imposed upon or dominate the characters.The film is also careful to explain why people like Martha may have entered into such a lifestyle in the first place. During a heated dinner table conversation, Ted (Martha's brother-in-law) accuses her of being lazy and ungrateful, for coming into his house and eating his food without even trying to plan what her next move will be. Martha retorts angrily that there is another way of living, and even if she is prevented from elaborating, we understand why people like herself may have been alienated from the aggressive consumerist and materialist lifestyle practised and celebrated by Ted and his wife Sarah.Although Martha Marcy May Marlene is very much a product of 2012, the subject matter has an old-fashioned tinge to it. Had it been made in the late-1960s or early-1970s, it would have been hugely controversial. It could have been embraced by the authorities as a realistic depiction of the threat posed by beatniks and hippie communes, and denounced by these groups as a piece of slanderous exploitation. It will certainly touch a nerve with those who remember the Manson family, whose actions, while not representative, helped to tarnish everything promoted in the Summer of Love. For younger viewers, the film sends out a message that attitudes towards women have not come on as far as we would like to think, and that similar cults continue to prey on the vulnerable in ways and for reasons which we still struggle to understand.One of the most sinister aspects of this cult is the practice of stealing people's names. There have been many films which have explored the loss of people's names as part of a process of breaking down identity: think of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman renaming all his grunts in Full Metal Jacket, or the sorceressYubaba turning Chihiro into Sen in Spirited Away. Martha Marcy May Marlene is more subtle than these, consolidating its theme of people being drawn in by their desire to forget themselves as individuals and find their purpose in a community. When Patrick remarks that Martha "looks like a Marcy May", he is beginning a process of which she is not yet conscious, and by the time she realises, it is too late.Being a psychological drama, there are a number of moments in Martha Marcy May Marlene which are deeply disturbing. The sequences involving the newest girls giving themselves to the men on one of their first nights is genuinely harrowing, as is the moment when Martha wakes up to find an aggressive young man riding on top of her. What is more impressive, however, is that Durkin maintains these feelings of dread and disgust even in the quietest and most innocuous moments. By cutting between the past and the present, we are constantly unsettled, so that when familiar figures turn up, we don't know whether to pinch ourselves, cry out or just run.The best compliment one can make about this film is that it achieves an unbearable level of tension and mental disorientation on a par with Roman Polanski's Repulsion. There are similarities between the films: both are about the disintegration of a female protagonist, caused or exacerbated by her experiences with men, and both blend reality and dream logic to throw us off the scent. But while Polanski is more expressionistic, physicalizing Carol LeDoux's demons as hands coming through the walls, Durkin is constantly reining himself in, resisting the urge for a big gesture which could undo all his good work.The film is also a good companion to Deliverance, John Boorman's film about man's perception of nature and the natural world being in conflict with the demands of modern life. Both films have what could be called an objective internal morality - in other words, they don't judge the events that happen on screen, they only present them. The shot of Martha seeing Patrick on the far bank of the lake in which she swimming is akin to the final moments of Deliverance, in which the hand of the dead hick rises from the flooded basin brandishing a shotgun. This and the invasion of people's homes by the cult members, like the children from Village of the Damned, portray a counter-culture still in conflict with modern lifestyles, long after all the arguments appeared to have been settled.The performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene are outstanding across the board. Olsen had rightfully received the lion's share of the plaudits, and like Jennifer Lawrence she manages to exhibit great presence and charisma without seeming to do much. Her performance is one of little details, and like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy we spend so much of our time wondering what each little tic or twitch might mean. John Hawkes, who co-starred in Winter's Bone, is suitably and subtly creepy at the cult leader Patrick, and both films utilise folk guitars to create an unnerving mood. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy also provide good support as Sarah and Ted, even if it is never explained why the latter has an English accent.Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best films of 2012 and as good a debut feature as one could possibly desire. Olsen's stunning central performance is married to inventive and intelligent direction from Durkin, who chooses to build tension the hard way and is rewarded for his patience. It is slightly too long, with a slow-burning and repetitive structure which some will find hard to handle. But these are small niggles in a deeply unsettling and unnerving film which gives Repulsion a run for its money.

Verdict: A modern-day Repulsion


  1. Terrific review! Couldn't agree more. I certainly will be checking out Deliverance and Repulsion.


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