Twists More Than Your Tongue

Martha Marcy May Marlene (October 7, 2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Sean Durkin (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

It takes less than five minutes of Sundance favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene to establish itself as a film of the unspoken.  In silence, we are shown the daily activities of a cult of farmers in the Catskill Mountains.  Nobody says a word, and as a result, we are given the impression that on the scale of cults, this one can’t be all that bad.  And then somebody speaks.  He shouts “Marcy May!” as a woman, played by Elizabeth Olson, runs into the woods.  We then begin to understand the underlying terror of the situation.

This woman is soon taken in by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who refer to her as “Martha” (don’t worry, “Marlene” will be explained later).  Their lakeside home is said to be approximately “three hours” from where Martha was the day before, a measure of distance that we can see the young woman ponder.  Meanwhile, Martha has trouble adjusting to the customs of normal society, and on the rare occasion that she does speak, it is often the wrong thing to say.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best films of 2011, a slow-burning product compiled with brooding tension, accompanied by a powerhouse performance by the lost Olson sister.  Accompanying her onscreen is John Hawkes, the supposed leader of the cult, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his performance in Winter’s Bone, a film of similar tone.  That inherent darkness is established through possibly the greatest editing I’ve seen all year, fluently traveling between time and place, reality and possible dream.  Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier also incorporates slow zooms and fades to add his own form of continuity to the foreboding series of events, while first-time writer and director Sean Durkin composes his shots with such eerie perfection, that we cannot help but be enthralled.

Olson’s facial expressions are haunting, and the film does quite an exquisite job of getting inside her head.  Martha soon believes that the cult is following her, a theory that becomes more intense as current occurances drive her memories of what happened on that farm.  But are they really memories?  Or are they fabrications designed to help her feel even more sorry for herself, given the unfortunate events that have occured in her life?  These events, presented rather vaguely to us, are what drive Martha to join the cult in the first place – an act that will lead to a divided life; one in which Martha not only has multiple identities, but has become completely displaced from time and space.  And as Lucy and Ted become more peeved by her “insane” behavior, her paranoia only becomes worse.  You would be scared too if you thought John Hawkes was watching your every move.

Martha may owe a lot to Polanski’s Repulsion or Aronofsky’s Black Swan in the way it examines a woman’s mental deterioration, but it is amazing how Durkin stages the events with such simplicity, yet with an undercurrent of depth and emotion.  The score by Daniel Bensi and Zachary Stuart-Pontier is also chilling to the bone.  The whole film is subtle, yet it has so much to say.  To help convey its message is Elizabeth Olson, who like Natalie Portman last year, should receive an Oscar nomination.  This is her film debut, and wow, she sure knows how to dominate the screen.  The level of nuance she puts into this performance is amazing, and I can’t wait to see how she tops it in her lineup of future films.

Olson accomplishes much through simply not speaking, and so effective is her line delivery when it does occur.  The character of Martha has come from a troubled past, and this has provoked her to become secretive; to not share her thoughts or feelings.  Yet the cult provides an alternative view of life.  They share everything, and although she feels at home for quite awhile, “Marcy May” cannot cope with their extremism.  She must escape again.  But her divided identity follows her, and Martha soon learns that there is no such thing as escape. Paranoia simply follows her until the final shot.  And Lucy, despite trying to help Martha at her most vulnerable, is no match for a relationship that cannot be healed, in addition to a life that has provided Martha no cohesive way to share it healthily.  Yet Durkin’s film is surely a cohesive piece of art, one that is hard to shake mentally or emotionally.  A lot like our own memories and dreams.  This is his, and like the life of his protagonist, it displays a world that is so hard to escape.

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