'Martha Marcy...' Mesmerizing
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
A huge hit at Sundance, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" has continued to wow festival audiences at Cannes, New York and Toronto. Wide release should extend first-time feature director Sean Durkin's winning streak: This psychological suspenser cum horror movie fairly pulses with cumulative dread, teasing our nerve endings with scrabbling spider feet of unease until we lose any sense of existential equilibrium. But it's the searing intensity of Elizabeth Olsen's performance, as a bruised young woman with many names and a dearth of identity, that assures "Martha Marcy May Marlene" standing among the best films of 2011.
The Catskills commune where we first meet Martha looks idyllic enough: a green sanctuary where teens in homespun garb farm their own food and sleep in gender-specific dorms, as companionable as puppies. It's only a little troublesome that the boys and Patrick (John Hawkes), the gaunt, hot-eyed fellow who heads the "family," sit down to table first while the women wait their turn. Whatever the cause, Martha sneaks out early one morning, pursued through the forest by brainwashed littermates hell-bent on returning her to the fold.
Rescued by sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, excellent), whom she hasn't seen for years, Martha finds herself ensconced in an upscale, lakeside Connecticut home, the flipside of hardscrabble commune life. Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) take Martha in, strangely uncurious about where she's been. Paulson and Dancy perfectly embody skin-deep folk living unexamined lives, not much troubled by questions of good and evil.
The only kind of chaos that frazzles Lucy is something out of place in her impeccable home. Less emotionally engaging is her mild guilt over enjoying yuppie advantages Martha's missed. The way Lucy dresses up her passive little sister like a lovely doll puts her in Patrick's corner, fitting Martha's malleable soul into yet another skin.
These are nice folks, kind in their way, but they lack the imagination to really "feel" the verging-on-feral houseguest who's given to spontaneous skinny-dipping and crawling into bed with them during sex. A moment of spontaneous fun -- Martha and hubby motorboat across the lake -- devolves from innocence into libidinous impulse. A serpent in her sister's "Good Housekeeping" paradise, this wild child hasn't a clue about boundaries, lines civilized folk don't cross.
In a film that's more contemplative than talky, Olsen's brilliant at intensely concentrated looking and listening: The melancholy loveliness of this lost soul's face hungers for animation, by some faith, some messiah. (Hard to believe this radiantly intelligent 22-year-old carries the same DNA as older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley.) Equally, Olsen can blank out, a shell-shocked zombie whose sense of self has shattered into the three masks of Martha, Marcy May and Marlene.
Slowly, horrific memories of commune life begin to surface. Through flashbacks, we come to understand how Martha's psyche has been broken. Hawkes' cult leader, at once fragile and strong as whipcord, preys on empty, yearning vessels, filling them up with the corrosive power of his personality. (Patrick re-creates Martha as "Marcy May"; Marlene's the moniker she uses when recruiting new girls into the cult.) In a scene so demonically seductive that it makes the short hairs rise, Patrick mesmerizes Martha (and us) with a romantic ballad he's composed just for her.
Whether raping his disciple or numbing her to sociopathic violence, Patrick's a raw-boned incubus, bent on devouring Marcy May body and soul. Hawkes invests this backwoods Manson with creepily lethal charm. Even after she's fled the commune, Martha's avid face and ripe body seem pregnant with his continuing possession, a monstrous parasite.
But it's not just memories that are bleeding into the present; Martha's toxic POV begins to poison everything she sees. Handsomely lensed in widescreen by indie cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, the Edenic green of the film's forests and fields shimmers and darkens, infected by menace and paranoia. A bartender looks like one of Patrick's minions; a black SUV parked on a back road might belong to the cult; a dark figure poised at lake's edge could be Patrick. Reality or madness? Doesn't matter. It's what we see, through Martha's eyes.
Durkin's film thrums in our very bones, internalizing the deeply unsettling realization that even the most bucolic surfaces may mask madness and evil, and that those surfaces are eminently fragile, permeable. The specific ingredients of the plot -- crazy cult and damaged survivor -- are disturbing enough, but some larger dread pervades the movie: This metaphysical horror film challenges any bedrock faith in identity, perception, reality.
How easily it can tear, that tapestry we weave into a pattern we call "the way things are," sucking us down into Hitchcockian nightmares where we all get lost in the dark. Out of that darkness, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" will haunt you longer than you may like.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of
Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction
(Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and
magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam)
and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been
included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best
American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done
everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford,
et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow,
Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.