Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Director: Sean Durkin
Reviewed: 20 May 2012
jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
The word cult is never uttered in Sean Durkin's brilliant film Martha Marcy May Marlene. However, the film is very much centered around the world of the eponymous lead character (Elizabeth Olsen) and her impressions of joining a cult in upstate New York led by the charismatic and quietly menacing Patrick (John Hawkes) as well as her experience trying to cleanse or deprogram after fleeing the cult. Durkin never takes us down a familiar road or a cliche; instead, his film's construction unsettles our expectations in its before and after focus. Eventually, Durkin's form breaks down completely between alternating from Martha's induction and initiation into the cult and her attempts to reconnect with her bourgeoise sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) in a lake house where she is staying with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). I turned to my wife an hour into the movie and asked what time period this sequence of shots was taking place-before the cult or after the cult. The brilliance of Durkin's direction and editing is that by the end of the film, we really cannot tell where we are and when we are, but that deliberate confusion is part and parcel of what Durkin is driving at: depicting one woman's mental deterioration at the hands of a cult and her family.
To say that a movie is scary when you're a 33 year old adult is a tricky thing. I am still afraid of sharks because of Jaws, possession because of The Exorcist, serial killers with night goggles because of The Silence of the Lambs, and aliens because of Aliens. On the surface, this film does not seem to be a scary one. However, I was really unsettled by the mundane depiction of cult life, low level crime, destruction of cultural and familial norms (the men all eat first at the cult; the women only eat when the men are done; the bedrooms, clothing, and women are all shared), as well as the explosion of violence at unexpected moments. I was scared watching this movie, filled with dread and a sense of impending doom that Durkin fully captures in a riveting final shot sequence with headlights peeking over the edge of the car window, tracking Martha. It scares me in its reality and its resemblance to the world that we do inhabit. John Hawkes delivers a nomination-worthy performance as Patrick, playing the guitar, smiling as he renames and brands the women who are initiated into the cult, using his quiet malevolence to disarm everyone around him. As for Olsen, she is a revelation in this film, with her expressive face and eyes showing the fear, sadness, and longing within Martha. She is an actress to watch.
However, Sean Durkin's direction and confident construction of this film is what sticks with me over the performances and the script. An online reviewer named Don Fishies on www.imdb.com compared this film to Memento which I think is interesting but not exactly right. Where Memento unspools backwards and builds upon itself continually in a fugue state, Martha Marcy May Marlene swirls vertiginously, with sounds blending from one time period to another, its associations being as simple as a swirling spoon in a glass, the fragmentation of Martha's consciousness playing out in a party scene when past and present intersect into a garish nightmare. Sounds of pine cones on the roof could be something more. A phone ringing is worse than anyone screaming. A nightmare turns into reality and turns into a violent confrontation. Ultimately, I think Durkin is reaching for profundity, offering up Lucy and Ted's life as a cult of sorts similar in some ways juxtaposed with the world of Patrick and his control and dominance, showing how people control others, how ritual rules our lives, and how private and public spheres intersect at the dinner table, in the bedroom, in chores. A subtext of Lucy abandoning Martha by going off to college is lightly touched upon, offering a possible reason why Martha could have been attracted to a cult. By abandoning her sister to the influence of an aunt, did Lucy steer Martha towards the influence of someone like Patrick? In the absence of family to protect her, how much can Martha be blamed?
How much are we responsible for influencing each other? How much are families really cults? Is everything a cult? Durkin masterfully raises troubling questions without answers. And, can I call Martha Marcy May Marlene a cult film about cults? I wish more people would see this powerful film. It will stick with you.
Fishies, Don. "Should be retitled: A Star is Born." 24 September 2011.