Martha Marcy May Marlene is not classified as a horror film – it’s a drama/thriller – and yet, it is more unsettling and disturbing than most horror films, because it’s based on reality. And what’s more frightening than that?
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, making his feature debut, the film gets its title from its main character Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). At the beginning, she escapes from a commune run by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and after eating at a diner, she calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a pay phone. Martha has been out of touch for two years, and she is evasive and sounds shaken. Hoping to reconnect with her estranged sister, Lucy drives three hours to pick her up, and then she takes the 20-something year old to her and her boyfriend’s (Hugh Dancy) vacation home. Initially, Martha seems to be OK, but as time passes, she begins exhibiting increasingly odd behavior and paranoia. Through flashbacks, we learn what happened to Martha – at the commune, she’s referred to as Marcy – and why she might have reason to be afraid.
I became interested in Martha Marcy May Marlene after it premiered at Sundance, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Directing Award. The favorable buzz hasn’t stopped since that debut, and since I don’t live in New York or L.A., I thought I would have to wait until the film came out on DVD to see it. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. It opened Friday, Nov. 11, at the Dundee Theatre, and I saw it on Saturday. I am still thinking about it, and want to see it again before it leaves town.
There are many reasons to rush out and see Martha Marcy May Marlene. The screenplay relies heavily on flashback, and through it we discover how Martha, an aimless woman without close family ties – both of her parents are dead – proved the perfect prey for someone like the charismatic Patrick and his devoted band of followers. Once inside the commune, she is isolated, sexually abused, and brainwashed, and then, herself, becomes a predator. Anyone familiar with religious/paramilitary cults – coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading Evil Harvest when I went to see this film – will recognize how well-researched and written this film really is. Durkin has obviously done his homework. The commune where Martha lives could have been modeled on anything from the Manson family to Mike Ryan and his Yahweh followers in Rulo, Neb. It’s chilling to watch this film, and I came away from it feeling traumatized … like I needed a shower or a therapy session. But that’s why it’s so brilliant. You are immersed in this woman’s life almost to the point that you’ve endured her experience with her.
Bringing this fascinating character study to life is the very talented younger sister of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Elizabeth. To be honest, I didn’t even know they had a younger sister nor did I know that she was an actress, but after seeing her in this, I’ll definitely be looking for her future projects. (FYI: She was recently cast in Therese Raquin, which has a tentative release date of 2013. Don’t worry, though. We’ll be able to see her much sooner than that in the horror film/English language remake of the Spanish Silent House, which just got a release date the other day. Look for it on March 9, 2012.)
In Martha Marcy, Olsen delivers an effortless, award-deserving, performance. You never once sense that she’s “acting.” Her Martha is very fragile and child-like/naïve; at times, she seems lost in her life, just sort of drifting through and looking for belonging. At first, when she joins the commune, she’s happy and content. Everyone seems to be so accepting and loving. But the longer she lives there, the façade begins peeling away, and we realize how claustrophobic and suffocating her situation really is. We see that women are second class citizens – they prepare the meals and then eat only after the men do – and are nothing more than servants and breeders. The commune, too, isn’t about peace, love and understanding. (SPOILERS) Quite the contrary, it engages in drug assisted rapes, weapons training, home invasion, murder, and, we can assume, female infanticide. (SPOILERS ENDED.) Can you understand why you feel traumatized by the experience? It’s almost like watching a fawn being circled by a mountain lion. You watch in horror, hoping that this lovely animal will come to its senses and flee.
The mountain lion in my example is played by the always reliable Hawkes, an actor who came on my radar when I saw him play the level-headed and kind Sol Star in Showtime’s gritty western Deadwood. Looking over his filmography, I realize that I’ve seen him in many, many films and TV series. After all, he’s been working in the industry since 1985, and yet, it is only recently that he’s garnered critical acclaim, particularly for his sinister turn as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone (2010). Some people have actually referred to Martha Marcy as this year’s Winter’s Bone, and I’m not in accordance with that statement. I know that I’m in the minority, but I was unmoved by Winter’s Bone; I didn’t understand the hype. Martha Marcy, on the other hand, is worth shouting about from rooftops and dragging everyone you know to see it. Films such as this need to be supported. They are the rare cinematic “miracles.” (And I truly hate it when films are called that, but there you go.) The skinny Hawkes portrays Patrick as self-assured, “electric,” and powerful. You understand why he has such an iron grip on these people’s minds. Look for the sequence, during which he sings a song to Martha. He cranks his appeal to an 11. Olsen’s reactions to the song are also noteworthy. She is so obviously under this man’s spell.
Durkin, who looks like he could be Michael C. Hall’s younger brother, is a multi-hyphenate: He’s a producer, writer, director, editor, and cinematographer, so look out, and add his name to your “one to watch” list. In a perfect world, he will see some Oscar glory early next year. He’s a strong contender in the best screenplay and best director categories, and Olsen and Hawkes are both strong choices in the best actress and best supporting actor categories. I haven’t been this excited about a film in a long time. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one film you MUST see. It easily tops my Best of 2011 list.
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