Saturday, December 03, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

I went into Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene having made a fundamental mistake: I expected to see the film I had read about in reviews. Elizabeth Olsen, as notable for her magnetism as for her placid outer beauty (if it's possible for an adult to look not fully formed, Olsen pulls it off), plays a woman named Martha who runs away from an Upstate New York cult in the film's opening sequence. Martha reestablishes contact with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, whose natural reserve is well used) and Lucy's husband  Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Durkin splits the story into Martha's time at her sister's Connecticut lake house and her earlier days with the cult. The transitions between the two time frames are seamless and gorgeously done; Durkin and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier key Martha's memories off such simple acts as jumping into a lake or holding a glass. The idea isn't planted until late in the film that the flashbacks to the cult are Martha's memories, occurring to her at the moment we see them. That fact is critical, I think, to understanding Martha's behavior in the Connecticut scenes and it was wise of Durkin to play that card late.

Martha's time at the cult is humdrum on the surface, but Martha and her fellow residents are at the mercy of the group's leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick's message isn't explicitly religious, but he's a master at raising the self-esteem of his followers while somehow encouraging their dependence on him at the same time. Martha and all the other women of the group are raped by Patrick; the act is referred to as "cleansing". Patrick also doles out access to the women's beds as a means of keeping his male followers in line. In one of the film's subtlest but most effective details, several of the group's men play music but Patrick is the only one whose songs are allowed to have words. Later on Martha will assist in another woman's initiation into the group; the scene is a turning point in the film as we begin to understand the group's true nature and what Patrick is capable of. It's also the point where I began to wonder what got Martha to this point. When we first see her she's sharing an illicit smoke with fellow group member Zoe (Louisa Krause) and there are intimations of wild behavior in her past. There's an emotional beat missing in Martha Marcy May Marlene, it's the moment where Patrick's message becomes more powerful to Martha than any other life she can imagine.

 I don't think Sean Durkin means to suggest that Martha's time in Connecticut is just as stifling as her time with Patrick, and if he does that idea is belied by the crinkly smile of Paulson and by Dancy's dry Englishness. (I was reminded of The Help in the ways that the emotional specificity of actors worked against any consequences - intended or otherwise - of the writing.) There's a moment where a distraught Martha is given a sedative by her sister that parallels something in the cult scenes. The parallel never takes root though, because Martha's family is just too reasonable.  Lucy and Ted, who live a prosperous but childless and slightly sterile life, are well-meaning but baffled by Martha. It's that bafflement that Durkin is really keying on. Lucy and Martha (who seem to have lost their parents early) haven't been close for years, and the tentative connection that Martha begins to forge with her sister is nothing like the connections she had as part of Patrick's "family". That irony makes the ambiguous ending very effective. As Martha Marcy May Marlene comes to an end, Martha's journey is just beginning.

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