Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin)
One of the stranger occurrences resulting from a movie experiencing is the exhilaration from feeling angry. Written as such, that notion probably makes little sense. However, when one goes to see as many films as those who participate in the movie blog community, there comes a point when, sad as it may sound, one becomes somewhat numb to film. There are good movies, but how many good movies do we remember vividly a year down the road, or even 7-8 months down the road? Sometimes a furious jolt is required to liven up one’s film reviewer sense, to rekindle that one thing people want to feel every single time they watch a film: emotion. If the emotions elicited by said film are those of frustration and anger, so be it. It more than likely means the film is doing something correctly.
Sean Durkin’s feature length debut is Martha Marcy May Marlene, a devastating tale of one young woman’s feeble attempt to re-enter the normal world after spending two full years secluded away from society in a cult. The young protagonist is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), although during her time in the falsely amiable countryside community run by Patrick (John Hawkes), she went under other nicknames, like Marcy and May. Durkin recounts Martha’s rehabilitation efforts and the many episodes of her days spent in the cult in non-linear fashion. The movie begins by showing the titular character fleeing the house and come in contact with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who brings Martha into the lakeside country home where she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) spend their vacation time. It is during this period that Martha’s struggle truly begins, for while she has chosen to escape Patrick’s clutches, the habits and philosophies adopted during her time there are not quick to subside, thus giving birth to an uneasy tension between her and Lucy. Through flashbacks, the audience learns how the ideas and activities she partook in have shaped her, possibly forever.
The vast majority of the time, the reviews which appear on the blog are for films that were viewed the day before or at some time in the previous seven days. The case of Martha Marcy May Marlene differs in that our viewing experience ended a mere three hours ago at time of this writing. The film is thus incredibly fresh in the author’s mind and the emotions are still running high. Yet, despite the risks a writer incurs when engaging in a writing session driven by such powerful emotions (namely, a propensity to give in to hyperbole and lose focus), the opportunity to put the immediate reaction and thoughts was far too compelling to pass on. To reiterate what was hinted at above, anger was but one of the many wonderful things that the film produced. What sort of anger? As best as this review can say, it would be the sort of anger felt when a film pushes all the correct buttons for the hapless viewer to get the clearest sense of the tone and dark subject matter of this type of movie. Some of us have read or heard about stories of cults and the sorts of unsavoury behaviour they engage in. The heavy psychological and emotional baggage victims of cults are left with tend to stick around for the long term and evidently not for the better. Sean Durkin’s film explores this aspect of cult behaviour and its long term effects on former members in as vivid and effective a manner as possible. The reintegration of such people back into society takes time and will certainly be a road infested with little landmines. MMMM is as uncompromising as they come, refusing to let the viewer off the hook with clever explanations or easy exits. Try to imagine a loved one, a sibling or a parent or even just a good friend, brainwashed, who now tries to return to a degree or normality. There is a titanic psychological struggle at play, and to see this person you love still fall prey to disgusting habits despite whatever efforts they and you give can only be an excruciating experience. You want to help them, yet from one moment to the next they might take you to be the enemy. You love them, but they can no longer return that love in the same way. That level of internal destruction caused by the cult is something so vile, so seedy that this author can think of few things as bad in the world. Yes, deep anger was felt by watching Durkin’s film, but because it all felt so potent, so real. There was desire to see Martha be good. She herself even wanted to be good, but she failed so many times. Absolutely infuriating.
From a narrative standpoint, MMMM is incredibly well constructed, with an uncommon attention paid to the details of the characters and how they conduct themselves. Every so often Martha, now living her sister Lucy, will make an unexpected, sometimes strange or sometimes dismissive comment or act, one that appears, at first, to come out of the blue. Well, not really, for the audience knows that her years spent as a cult member have changed her, but the truth behind the comments or acts in question is mysterious. Lucy, who wants a child with Ted, would be a bad mother? Martha is a leader and a teacher? What the heck does that stuff mean? Director Durkin plays his cards in very subtle and creative manner by slowly yet surely revealing the origins of Martha’s strange attitudinal deficiencies. Each flashback represents either a task she learned while under Patrick’s house with her fellow community members, or perhaps something that directly happened to her alone in a specific moment. The episodic nature of the flashbacks represent the pieces of the puzzle which make up what Martha has become. To Lucy and Ted, she is a mystery, for the protagonist remains consistently evasive of what she has been doing over the past couple years. While her older sister remains out in the cold with regards to the truth, the audience has the privilege of learning much of what transpired. The conflict between Martha’s desire to rediscover herself (she has, after all, wilfully chosen to leave the cult) and the deeply inflicted wounds that haunt her is at times quite difficult to watch. The acting, in particular from Elizabeth Olsen, is unforgettable. She is young and does not display too much emotion. Is that because of who she is, or because of the battle she must endure? There are visible scars, both in the literal and figurative senses. Her left ear is literally bruised and her face is one that most of the time seems totally unsure of how to approach things anymore. Maybe it is a blank stare, maybe it is a sad stare. Angry too? It is whatever each audience member reads on her face, simple as that. A really interesting performance from young Olsen, it must be said.
Honest question: who, two years ago, was really familiar with actor John Hawkes? Who even knew the name? While surely some people did, it seemed as if the actor’s presence in 2010’s Winter’s Bone as one of the best true anti-heroes in recent years has been met with a surge in recognisability. A curious supporting role in Contagion and now a fine turn as the insidious cult leader Patrick. He may be skinny, but the actor manages to use his physicality and voice to his own advantage. At first glance one might not believe Hawkes capable of playing an intimidating character, but anybody who goes to see Martha Marcy May Marlene will beg to differ afterwards.
There is not much left to say other than that Sean Durkin’s tale of a woman’s difficult journey back into the world should not be missed. It is currently experiencing a limited theatrical release, meaning not much of an audience yet, but if the movie gods know what to do, the film will garner more a greater fanbase in the years to come.