Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene: A Review


Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet film.  There isn't much in terms of music, and there is almost a documentary-like feel to how the story is shot.  However, this is part of what makes MMMM a brilliant and chilling study of a woman either emerging from a shocking experience or sinking into insanity. 

We get glimpses into the world of Marcy May.  It's a commune where the men are the rulers and the women the workers and virtual sex slaves (the women, for example, have to wait until the men are finished eating for them to have their meal).  She then is seen running into the woods, and there she calls her sister, who calls her Martha.  Martha and Marcy May are the same person. 

Martha/Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) now finds refuge in the home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  However, it's clear that something's wrong with Martha: she casually swims in the nude in the clear presence of others and even climbs into bed while Lucy and Ted are having sex.  Lucy and especially Ted are perplexed, even angry at her behavior, but as MMMM goes on we get glimpses of how what appears irrational flows from her time in the cult.

Flowing back and forth between the present as Martha and the past as Marcy May (the name she was given at the commune), we see how her actions are a reaction to what has come before.  We see how she came to be in this cult, and the power the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) had over all.  Martha tries to become more 'normal' but her worldview has been so warped that she cannot help behaving bizarrely.  We see some of the horrors she has seen and endured, but Lucy continues to believe Martha's story that she had lost contact with her while living with 'a boyfriend'. 

Finally, Ted and Lucy know that they are simply unable to care for Martha.  Reluctantly, Lucy agrees to take Martha to treatment (we suspect a hospital but it's never fully established).  As the three drive on, they are interrupted by someone on the road.  We don't see who it is.  Is it members of the cult, determined to get Marcy May back (perhaps to stop her from revealing a horrifying secret)?  Was it just a random person?  Is Martha really crazy?  Martha Marcy May Marlene then cuts to black.

Normally, I'm not a fan of open endings, but it works with Martha Marcy May Marlene (the 'Marlene' by the way comes from the name the women in the cult use whenever they answer the phone).  It leaves the audience wondering whether the figure Martha encounters really is from the cult or not.  This is just one of the great steps writer/director Sean Durkin takes to make MMMM a brilliant film.

Durkin first keeps the pacing strong and steady.  As I've stated earlier, MMMM has something of a documentary feel to it, primarily in the fact that the film has a natural look to it.  As part of how the cult feeds itself, they steal from the wealthy homes nearby.  The camera work by Jody Lee Lipes is never flashy in these scenes when others might have gone for fast movements and pulsating music to emphasize the tension of breaking and entering.  Instead, there is a quiet aspect to this work. 

This emphasis of keeping things still works to great effect near the end of MMMM when we the audience are given information that a character doesn't have.  Durkin keeps the tension intense, counterbalancing the quiet stillness of the setting and the actors with the potential for violence.  When the tension is finally broken in a shocking act, it makes the scene even more stunning.

It should be mentioned that there is music in MMMM (from Saunder Jurriaans & Danny Bensi) but it is used sparingly.  There is a song in MMMM which appear as part of the scene and one in the closing credits (both written by the late Jackson C. Frank: Marcy's Song and Marlene respectively) which are blended beautifully into the film, and Marcy's Song in particular is a beautiful song that adds to how Frank could have so bewitched Martha into becoming Marcy May. 

A surprise is that John Hawkes isn't a bad singer, but I digress.

The performances from the cast are all brilliant.  Olsen delivers an absolute stunner of a turn as the conflicted and battered Martha/Marcy May.  Olsen shifts from damaged to almost hostile to paranoid to deeply frightened, a full range of emotions that shock you and break your heart.  Paulson is equally brilliant as Lucy.  While other scripts might have been tempted to make the sister unsympathetic, Durkin opted to make Lucy someone who wants to help her sister but has a hard time understanding her behavior.  The fact that Lucy is kept in the dark about Martha's time in the cult makes her confusion more understandable.  Dancy also does excellent work as the husband who also wants to be supportive but begins to become irritated by his sister-in-law's actions.

Hawkes in particular needs to be commended for turning in another brilliant performance so soon after coming off his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Winter's Bone.  His Patrick is a dangerous and evil man, but he isn't one who ever really rages and rules by intimidation.  In fact, I cannot remember Patrick ever raising his voice.  The fact that he rules his cult by being so soft-spoken makes him even more terrifying and evil.  In one scene, he asks Marcy May to kill a kitten.  Marcy May refuses, but in Patrick's soft tones and words he exudes the pressure for her to do something horrifying, which not only gives insight into what an evil man Patrick is but how he could get people to do even worse things. 

In one technical aspect, Martha Marcy May Marlene deserved special recognition (which sadly, it did not get).  Zac Stuart-Pontier's editing flowed seamlessly between the past and present without ever stopping the action.  It shifted back and forth so well one never became jarred when we would go from her time as Marcy May to her time as Martha.  On occasion the screen would fade to black, but even this signals of shifting times didn't stop or hinder how smoothly MMMM went on screen. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a thrilling and heartbreaking film of a woman who has been beaten up emotionally, in certain ways quite innocent and in other ways well aware of the brutality of others.  Save for Patrick none of the characters are either all good or all evil.  The performances are all so pitch-perfect, where again it almost looks as if we were watching a documentary rather than a feature film. It's a brilliant film with brilliant performances.  Each M in the title is reflective of the stars I'd give it.


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