Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene: Portrait of paranoia

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (2011) • View trailer for Martha Marcy Mae Marlene
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, profanity, rape and nudity
By Derrick Bang

If a film’s influence is judged by its ability to linger in the mind, days and weeks later, then Martha Marcy May Marlene is incredibly powerful. Quite some time later, I still can’t get some of its images from my head.
Try as she might, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, left) can't break through the barrier with
which younger sister Martha (Elisabeth Olsen) has surrounded herself.
Something awful happened to Martha, and unless she finds a way to confront
and move past this trauma, it may haunt her forever.

Writer/director Sean Durkin’s psychological drama is at first intriguing, then mildly unsettling and finally downright creepy: far too close to real-world parallels to be dismissed as casual entertainment. (Not that “entertaining” is a word I’d use in the first place.)

That said, both Durkin’s sluggish pacing and his movie’s low-budget origins betray it; the film stock is distractingly grainy, and Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is too dark at times, with a few scenes literally nothing but murk. Much of the dialogue is spoken quietly, and either looped poorly in post-production or not at all; as a result, some of the conversations are difficult to discern.

Fortunately, star Elizabeth Olsen does most of her acting via complex, haunted expressions and phenomenal body language; this is the best portrayal of an irrevocably damaged spirit that I’ve seen in a long time. Olsen is both mesmerizing and unforgettable: quite appropriate, then, that her face is the last thing we see, before the story fades to its final blackout (rather chillingly, I might add).

Durkin opens his film with an idyllic overview of a farming commune somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. This silent montage is bucolic and utopian, with men and women working various chores while young children seek fun in mud puddles.

But this tranquil sequence has a darker side. The first disconcerting sign comes as dinner is served: The men eat first at the single table, taking their time with the meal, while all the women wait — silently — in the next room. After the men leave the table, the women are released to enjoy their own food. The implication is that they get scraps.

The following morning, a lone figure rises early from a “bedroom” strewn with blankets, sleeping bags and ramshackle beds, prone bodies all but lying atop one another. Martha (Olsen) quietly heads downstairs, slides out the front door but is spotted by another young woman; Martha flees into the nearby forest, pursuit not far behind.

She escapes. (Perhaps.) With nowhere else to turn, she phones her long-estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drops everything to collect Martha and bring her back to a lush, lakeside Connecticut summer home.

Details emerge slowly: much more slowly than they would in real life. This is by design; Durkin parcels out bits of information parsimoniously while cross-cutting between Martha’s terrified flight in the “now,” and her experiences in what eventually emerges as more cult than commune, in the “recent past.”

The back-story is vague; we never learn what drove Martha to this commune, although the implication is that she was recruited by Watts (Brady Corbet), a personable young man apparently sent out to “harvest” teenage and early twentysomething girls at loose ends.

Lucy gets none of this from her younger sister, who behaves more like a frightened deer than a human being. Lucy’s new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), registers this visitor’s peculiar behavior but tries — truly tries — to make the best of the situation.

Each parallel timestream builds its own suspense and tension; we keep waiting for Martha to break down and share her experiences of the past few years, and we wonder why she doesn’t. True, her relationship with Lucy is brittle at best, but all creatures crave comfort, solace, warmth and security; Lucy and Ted are willing to offer the lot.

At the same time, as the cult’s true nature becomes progressively more apparent, we begin to sense the reasons for Martha’s silence. Everything points to the charismatic power and pervasive influence of the group’s manipulative leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).

Although outwardly calm and gentle, Patrick has the coiled, poisonous fury of a serpent. He’s wholly amoral; everybody — the other men and all the exploited women — accept the “initiation” ceremony he visits on all female newcomers.

Patrick’s surface behavior is philosophical and idealistic, with the opposition to materialistic society that lost souls often find attractive. But his “compassion” is freighted with blunt psychological control: binding his flock through intimidation and faux “closeness.” When he plucks a song on a guitar and dedicates it to Martha — whom he has re-christened Marcy May — we’re not sure whether to be touched or terrified.

Neither is Martha.

Eventually, we come to dread the implications behind one of Patrick’s casual, comforting remarks to Martha: “You’re my favorite. I’ll never let you go.”

Hawkes is well remembered for his similarly memorable performance as the psychotic Uncle Teardrop in last year’s Winter’s Bone, a role than earned him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. He’s just as scary here, albeit for entirely different reasons; Teardrop was a creature of impulse and uncertainty, whereas Patrick is a planner. If this is a game of psychological chess, Patrick always is 17 moves ahead.

Paulson is our surrogate into this disturbing saga; she’s a mother figure trying her best to do what we’d do, by identifying the problem and fixing it. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that Lucy would be overmatched even by conventional interpersonal trauma; this situation is wholly beyond her ken. Paulson’s forlorn helplessness — and her frequently stricken expressions — are heartbreaking.

Dancy is appropriately conflicted; Ted wants to do right by his new wife and unexpected sister-in-law, but his patience has its limits. And Martha repeatedly crosses that boundary: not by design or malice, but because she has been indoctrinated into behavior so far outside the norm that Ted eventually views it as an affront to his lifestyle and core beliefs.

How could he not? Martha is more truculent teenage snot than peer ... although it goes much deeper than that.

Olsen, essentially making her big-screen debut here — if we discount the obscure horror flick Silent House, also released this year — owns this film. That’s no small accomplishment, with Hawkes around. Although emotionally crippled when we meet her, Martha is bright, perky and willingly, voluptuously sexy when she’s first brought to the commune; Olsen’s subsequent transformation is subtle and persuasive, as the elements of Martha’s spirit and individuality are snuffed, bit by bit, until almost nothing is left.

Even sex becomes tainted, the act forever stripped of any semblance of love or affection.

And yes, Olsen is one of those Olsens. Older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley may have garnered pop-culture fame, fortune and notoriety, but Elizabeth clearly got all the acting talent.

At times, though, she and everybody else act up a storm in a vacuum, and that’s the maddening part. Durkin’s filmic approach often is as dull and dreary as dishwater, his pacing so slow that it essentially stops. Granted, good psychological drama builds on the gradual revelations of changing personality, but there’s such a thing as being too methodical.

The absence of outer world detail also is irritating. The commune’s isolated setting notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that these people wouldn’t have come to the attention of the outside world — and the law — particularly given Patrick’s fondness for sending his troops on occasional B&E “foraging” expeditions into nearby upscale homes.

And what, precisely, did Lucy do — trying her best as a surrogate parent, following the vague and unspecified deaths of their parents — to make Martha hate her so much? More questions, never answered.

Durkin clearly is talented; he draws excellent performances from his cast, and he deserves the awards he won at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals. But Martha Marcy May Marlene is more a series of episodes than a unified narrative: a whole not quite up to the sum of its parts.

But this much is obvious: Given a better production budget, Durkin will do great things. And Elizabeth Olsen already is doing great things.

No comments:

Post a Comment