Posted by: chance47 | 08/31/2012

Home Viewing: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” or “A Cult of Creeeeeeeeepy”

I have an ever growing list of irrational fears (seriously I do… My List of Irrational Fears) that no matter how much I try to rationalize will not go away.  Maybe I’m part paranoid or a hypochondriac, but I know I am not alone in fearing sometimes what is highly unlikely.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a movie that those afflicted with extreme paranoia or irrational fears should do all they can to avoid.   This movie will not be pleasant for you.   To be fair, it isn’t a pleasant movie.  It is however daring, chilling and fascinating.

The title refers to the central character Martha, or at times Marcy May, and even every so often Marlene.  A young woman who through vague and manipulative channels has found herself living in a Catskills commune with a horribly seedy underbelly.  At the beginning movie we are shown a brief glimpse of this communal life, the men eat first while the women wait.  The farmhouse and land, while rustic, is full or portent.  Martha, or Marcy May as she is now called, is quickly seen escaping early one morning through the woods.  She is physically upset and clearly not supposed to be absconding in such a manner.  Members of the commune are quickly after her trying to bring their Marcy May  home.

While eating at a diner she is confronted by a male member of the commune, Watts (an charming yet creepy Brady Corbet).  Through this encounter it becomes painfully clear that this particular subculture life is less than idyllic.  After a panicked phone call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) she is whisked away to a Connecticut time share.  This house is open.  Windows everywhere.  New appliances and a private dock on the nearby lake.  A stark contrast to the rundown farm, dark and dirty, with all women sleeping in one room.  Martha (or is she still Marcy May?) clearly does feel as if she fits in this environment.   Which is better?   The relative safety of her sister  and her husband Ted (a prickly Hugh Dancy) or the dark unknown of the Catskills?

This push-pull dynamic encompasses much of the movie.  While Martha tries desperately to resume normal life she is constantly plagues with a crisis of identity.  She snaps at her sister and brother-in-law for their materialistic lifestyle, yet constantly wakes up in the night at the slightest noise.  Where is safety for her?

Through a series of flashbacks we begin to see more of Martha’s time on the commune.  We meet the beguiling Patrick (an always effective and welcome John Hawkes).  He is the leader of this commune-cum-cult and it is Patrick who takes one look at Martha and declares that she “looks more like a Marcy May.”   Thus her new identity is formed.  Viewers are taken back and forth through Martha’s timeline.   The more she tries to regain what remnants remain of her life before the commune the more we are taken deeper into the goings on of the cult.  As Martha becomes increasingly more paranoid in her sister’s house, the flashbacks reveal just what lies at the heart of this adopted community.  The more the audience learns, the more Martha begins to lose her grip on reality.

What makes this movie work, for the most part, is the concept and direction of first-time feature director Sean Durkin and the gut-wrenching performances of the central cast.  The film, and Durkin’s greatest undoing may be in the script itself, which Durkin wrote.  While the non-linear storyline is mostly effective it veers at times towards being too clever.  There is potent ambiguity in the film, but also willful obscurity.  But despite the scripts few shortcomings Durkin’s direction never let’s the movie’s momentum slip.  We haven’t much time to question our confusions before being gut-punched by a new revelation.  Sean Durkin is a filmmaker that I look forward to seeing his future work.

What elevates this movie to a must see, however, are the performances.  As the central figure of Martha, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a breakthrough performance that promises a career full of rich characters and feral performances.  A role like this could run off the rails as easily as it could be underplayed, but Olsen allows her emotions to take her to the brink but yet never fall over.  She makes even the most bizarre of Martha’s actions seem natural and heartbreaking.  As her caring but harried sister Lucy, Sarah Paulson walks an amazing tight rope.  This part could just as easily veer into a one-note character simply there to show the audience how strangely Martha is acting.  But Paulson allows a great deal of humanity to color Lucy.  She is a woman torn between the love for her sister and the desire for her perfect lifestyle with her husband.  As John Hawkes takes what could easily be a crime procedural villain and allows Patrick to slowly creep under your skin with his charm and control.  Hawkes is so charismatic as Patrick that you believe that a young, headstrong woman like Martha could leave her old life behind to serve at Patrick’s side.

While the sum total of the film is uneven; watching the commanding Elizabeth Olsen struggle to reclaim herself and her identity after her harrowing experiences through one of America’s lesser known evils makes “Martha Marcy May Marlene” a harrowing, horrific, yet oddly compelling movie.  By the end a chord of fear has been struck that left me wondering just how irrational some of my fears might be.

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