Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Martha Marcy May Marlene ***½
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes
Sarah Paulson, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner
Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with an escape: we see how a young woman (Olsen) having made sure no one is watching her, picks up a small bag and runs into the woods. Not a minute passes by before she is pursued by a group of people calling out her name "Marcy May! Marcy May!". The young woman hides from them - the look on her face one of complete dread and fear - before she feels safe to continue on her way.
Next, she picks up a pay phone, the woman on the receiving end asking "Martha is that you?", before the caller begs her to come find her. Sean Durkin's debut feature film begins with a bang - albeit an understated one - making us wonder how did this fragile looking woman, end up being known by two different names and what exactly is she running away from.
We learn soon that the woman Martha contacted is her sister Lucy (Paulson), a WASP-y well-doer who picks up her damaged little sister and takes her back to the summer house she shares with her husband, Ted (Dancy).
Lucy seems to be used to Martha pulling off these stunts and immediately assumes that she just got dumped by "some boyfriend". Martha decides to please her and just nod in agreement of whatever she says, without letting her know that she in fact was escaping from the overpowering abuses of a cult she'd joined.
Memories of the way she was forced into submission by, charismatic cult leader, Patrick (Hawkes) begin to haunt her and eventually she becomes convinced that her fellow cult members are coming to get her.
Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, lets the story flow effectively on two levels, for we never know if Martha's fears are founded on reality or merely part of a persecution delirium.
Durkin's storytelling is so tight and controlled that the movie can work on both levels simultaneously, becoming a creepy thriller about cults as well as a superb study on the frail dynamics between fantasy and reality.
The director amps up the feeling of constant fear by relying on very basic techniques like ambiguous dialogues, a brilliant work of editing that blurs the lines between past and present and a camera that fixes itself on its subjects until it decides to zoom slowly towards them. It's in these moments when the camera tries to get closer that the film's themes manage to get under your skin.
That the camera has such an effect isn't just owed to the cinematographer, but also to Olsen who delivers an exquisite performance. Slowly she becomes one with every other element in the movie: the camera flashing us with the unconscious threats that plague her existence, the editing showing us that her present is constantly disturbed by images of her past and the sound design creating a world view that's haunted in the strictest sense of the word.
Lesser actresses would've let the screenplay's powerful story define their character, Olsen instead taps into something that's both disturbingly primal and beautiful to watch. She creates a persona for each of the women contained in the film's title, her Martha being a wild child who was always in the lookout for a deeper existence, her Marcy May being an illusion-filled girl whose crush turned into a nightmare and her Marlene being a completely fictitious creation that defines this woman's darkest intentions.
Olsen is able to overcome the fact that the movie could've easily become a critique of cults, instead making us understand why someone like Martha would be eager to be seduced by the "love for all" facade offered by strangers.
Watch the scene in which Patrick tells her "you look like a Marcy May", Hawkes complying with the slimy, but undeniably sexy, traits someone would need to convince you of joining their cult and Olsen displaying an almost childish coyness, surprised and moved that someone looks through her this way.
That Martha, Marcy May and Marlene never become completely defined people is testament to Olsen's capacity of inhabiting several lives, trying to find different truths in each of them, the only universal one - and also the film's chilling bookend- being that whoever she really is, she'll never be able to escape from herself.