MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Elizabeth Olsen, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah
Director: Sean Durkin
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 102 Minutes
Release Date: February 21, 2012
“Well she's...she's just a picture...”
Here is a piece of work that ultimately defines the word unsettling. Combine all of the horror films released last year, including the few good ones, and you won't even come close to the bone-chilling effect of writer/director Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Few films I saw last year had stuck with me like this one did, as I kept thinking about it weeks after I saw it.
Added to this is, for my money, the breakout star performance of the year by Elizabeth Olsen, who just so happens to be the younger sister of twins Mary Kate and Ashley. Judging from this film alone, it's clear that this Olsen is serious about becoming a true actress. It's also clear, thanks to this film, that we soon won't even be thinking about her sibling connection, but rather what an amazing actress she has become.
I had never before seen a film depicting a modern day cult (actually, I don't think there have been many films made about them). But writer/director Durkin has crafted a portrait that dangerously mirrors the disturbing effect of reading all the stories about cults growing up, most notably The Branch Davidians. It's so unsettling that I'm almost afraid to know what research Durkin may have had to do in order to make the film.
The film opens quietly on a farmhouse somewhere in upstate New York where this particular cult resides. We get a glimpse of the rules followed within the group, such as that of the men and women eating separately and following one another. Both groups perform duties during the day, and share rooms to sleep in the same style of a summer camp.
Early one morning, Martha (Olsen), runs away from the farm. She is pursued on foot briefly, and is even confronted by a member at a nearby diner, who toys with her before leaving her to eat in peace. A few minutes into the film, and we can already sense an unrelenting sense of dread to linger.
Eventually, Martha calls up her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is of course stunned by her sister's sudden phone call. Needing a place to stay, she is taken in by Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their Connecticut lake house, where she is allowed to live until she gets back on her feet. Lucy can tell that her sister is in some sort of traumatized state, but refrains from bringing the issue forth as she just wants to reconnect with her.
And traumatized, Martha certainly is, as we see how the simplest actions trigger memories of her time with the cult. We see these moments unfold in flashback, but Durkin executes such a riveting toying of narrative here that it goes a step above just a traditional flashback structure. Moments from the past blend so seamlessly with Martha's present state, which adds quite a lot to the film's potent effect.
We see her quickly fall under the spell of the cult's charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Upon meeting her, and hearing her name, he simply looks at her and says, “you look like a Marcy May”, which is of course the name she will go by from this point on. Marlene is the name all the female members use when answering the phone.
As we cut back to Martha in the present, she is periodically engaging in some odd behavior. She skinny dips in the lake right in front of Lucy and Ted, can't seem to sleep without thinking about the countless nights where she was forced to engage in sex with Patrick or any of the other male members (there were more women than men in the cult), and during a social gathering she flips out at a bartender after starting a friendly conversation. In other words, it's all too clear that the traumatizing effect caused by her time in the cult is horrifically escalating.
I've seen many breakout performances in my time, and I've predicted that many newcomers would enjoy prosperous careers as result of them...only to see a good many not particularly explode like I initially predicted. But in the case of Elizabeth Olsen, who was unfortunately one of Oscar's biggest snubs this year, there's no mistaking that a true star has been born by way of this ferociously daring and haunting piece of acting. And taking into account that she could have easily achieved stardom by attaching herself to her hugely popular older sisters, but chose a much more artistically creative path in order to get it makes one admire her even more.
Even though a great deal of the film's impact comes from the moody atmosphere and unyielding sense of dread that Sean Durkin has established in his screenplay, the finished product wouldn't have the desired potent effect without a performance at the level Ms. Olsen delivers. And being that her character is front and center for the entire film, in addition to her many names making up the title, that is nothing but a true key ingredient. It's a performance that shares a lot in common with that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone from a year and a half ago in that both films were dreary mood pieces showcasing young actresses in breakout roles that the power of the film depended a lot upon.
Another key connection to Winter's Bone is that of actor John Hawkes, whose calm portrait of true evil in the form of cult leader Patrick makes his sinister character in the earlier film look more like Guido from Life is Beautiful. Hawkes is an actor I've enjoyed watching ever since I took notice of him as the pesky motel worker in Identity. And here, he gives one of the most chilling and scary performances you are ever likely to see...and his most frightening moment happens to be the performance of a song dedicated to Martha.
I honestly have never seen a film where I felt an unsettling sense of dread from beginning to end (the final shot of the film sent chills down my spine in a way I can't make sense of without spoiling the end, which I'm not going to do). Needless to say, this isn't a film for everyone, as both the disturbing qualities of the story and the slow-burn pace may be a turn off for some. But if you're like me and are willing to give yourself over to such a film, the result can be a most mesmerizing experience, which this certainly is. One of the absolutely best films of 2011!
An effective looking film has been given a tremendously effective treatment courtesy of this Blu-ray release from Fox. I haven't even gotten around to mentioning how immensely powerful the cinematography is in this film. The camerawork provided by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes is done in a low key manner, and yet conveys so very much in the process. The film also carries with it a nice, celluloid texture and doesn't appear to be victimized by the likes of edge-enhancement or compression artifacts. Colors are outstandingly preserved, as well. Just a well-round solid treatment!
While this indie release might not come across as one to carry with it a true sense of dynamic sound, the DTS HD mix does a most fantastic job of balancing the quietly chilling moments of the film, the delivery of the often intense dialogue, the ambient sounds provided by the mostly woodland based setting and the refreshingly haunting score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi. The handling of these different ingredients very much result in a most striking sounding presentation.
Though I would have loved a cast and crew commentary this time around, the Blu-ray does feature a nice little treat in the form of writer/director Sean Durkin's short film titled Mary Last Seen, which was shot when the actual feature was in pre-production. It definitely serves as a fitting prelude to the events in the feature film. Also included are a number of featurettes, including “The Psyche of a Cult”, “Spotlight on Elizabeth Olsen”, “The Story”, “The Making of Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “A Conversation with the Filmmakers”. Lastly, we get a music video of “Marcy's Song” by John Hawkes and a Theatrical Trailer.
One of the best films of 2011 was also the most downright frightening film of that year as well. Martha Marcy May Marlene will definitely be the film I immediately associate with the words “chilling” and “unsettling” for years to come. It's a truly unnerving psychological nightmare anchored by the brilliant breakout work from Elizabeth Olsen!