Monday, November 7, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

May Day For A Fugitive Existence In The Catskills

Elizabeth Olsen (left) as Martha and Sarah Paulson as Lucy in Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene".
Fox Searchlight
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 7, 2011

You are running in the woods.  You don't recognize the environment.  All you know is that you're running as fast as you can.  At some point you experience a colorless array of sensations, memories, feelings, thoughts and visions, but which are which and which are real?  Those questions go unanswered in Sean Durkin's intense and arresting drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene", now making its way around the U.S. and Canada.

Martha (Elizabeth "Lizzie" Olsen) is at the center of a mystery.  She's unsure whether she's a teacher and a leader or whether the world of the Catskills in upstate New York is the here and now or the past.  Martha has escaped from a cult there led by Patrick (a supremely eerie John Hawkes), a cult she's been in for about three years.  This much we know for sure.  There's no prologue, just situations the director subjectively places the audience in via the uneasy mind of the film's protagonist.  The uncertainty adds a layer of creepiness, and the jarring nature of "MMMM" simulates a post-traumatic stress disorder and disorientation conveyed in a series of powerfully blunt, bludgeoning edits masterfully executed by Zachary Stuart-Pontier.

Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is Martha's estranged sister, a newly-wed who seeks to reconnect with her sister but gains mixed results.  The tension between them is as much about their class and societal differences as anything familial, and throughout Mr. Durkin provides echoes of class tensions and environments that feel distinctly familiar but are starkly different each time.  The director's screenplay makes everything, including events that takes place independent of Martha up for question, or at least up for which temporal zone the events occur in.  There's a halting, dreamlike quality to several episodes, particularly where some cult members make intrusions on the affluent.

"Martha" is a rigorous puzzle of a mind, a fragile mind that is apparently unreliable yet ardently certain in its convictions.  Jody Lee Lipes's effective cinematography has a faded, earthen pallor, almost unfinished yet clearly defined.  There are distinct stylistic and other pushes and pulls in many of the elements in Mr. Durkin's debut feature, and his confidence as a director and screenwriter is abundant.  He takes chances with long takes, slow push-ins and prolonged fade-outs and fade-ins that heighten the atmosphere and murky world we've been sitting in.  (Mr. Durkin has directed videos and short films, and made a short film with "MMMM" actor Brady Corbet about a year or two prior that was the impetus to shooting "Martha Marcy".)

Mr. Durkin allows "MMMM" to wander and work on your mind in unsettling ways.  Like Martha we are never allowed to relax during the film and we are never certain, even at the end, exactly where Martha is (or we) are.  Wonderfully bold, suspenseful and mesmerizing, Mr. Durkin's drama combines the terrestrial and the psychological, blending and alienating them, then contracting those worlds so as to eventually make them indistinguishable.  Mr. Durkin gets superb debut work from Lizzie Olsen, whose openness and perceptiveness as an actress allows for her total command of the big screen.  Miss Olsen gives Martha a fierce, unrelenting center. 

On film Miss Olsen, 22, has acted just once prior in the yet-to-be released "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" with Jane Fonda, and in "MMMM" she possesses vast confidence, wisdom and maturity in a finely nuanced and star-making performance, the kind one expects from seasoned actors.  All of the actors on display in "MMMM" are flawless, giving away not one more iota of revelation about their characters than is necessary.  Each brings steely commitment and intelligence to their role.  Each of their characters could be your next-door neighbor.

"MMMM" has many layers but none are influenced by sentimentality.  At virtually all times the life we see is purely Martha's much more so than it is the film's independent embodiment or manipulation of that life.  Often rough and unruly yet oddly seamless in its fertile underpinnings, "MMMM" is haunting and memorable.  The film's jagged edges and brittle core aren't easily embraceable or welcoming but in its various filters of truth, madness and memories lie artifice, fantasy and deep denial.  Does Martha represent freedom from repression?  From corporate and metropolitan America?  Martha will take off her clothes at an inopportune time, raising the ire of one person, and what that certain individual does is a testament to either restraint or a good, well-meaning heart. 

Yet in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" we don't really know who or what a good heart is.  The film avoids making clear-cut judgments of any of its figures, even those who appear to have less than good intentions.  None of the characters is empathetic enough to warrant a significant attachment; it is the deeply troubling and conflicting worlds that we are invested in the most. 

If you're a city slicker you could easily lose yourself entirely in the countryside, especially if you are unfamiliar with it.  In "Martha Marcy May Marlene" I lost myself in the hopelessness, horror and complexity of Martha's journey.  It's a long, strange, beautiful and brilliant trip for sure, one well worth taking.

With: Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Julia Garner, Christopher Abbott, Maria Dizzia, Louisa Krause, Lauren Molina.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 44 minutes.

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