Friday, October 21, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Terror of a Fragmented Mind

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and Directed By: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Julia Garner, and Louisa Krause.
Director of Photography: Jody Lee Lipes, Editor: Zachary Stuart-Pontier, Production Designer: Chad Keith, Original Music: Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
Rated: R for things rather not spoiled.

            If you go see the independent thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which you most definitely should, I want you to sit as close to the screen as possible. Not because I want you to hurt your neck (in that case, go a few rows back), but I want you to be engulfed by the film's intense close-ups, which will put you in the most psychologically uncomfortable position possible. I want you to really feel each loud sound that disrupts this film full of silences. I want you to feel as paranoid as its main character, feeling that any moment of calm can be instantly destroyed by unknown forces creeping just outside the frame.

            Martha Marcy May Marlene is the latest in a series of independent features from the United States that appear to be ushering in a new wave of smartly composed films that reject the DIY mumblecore genre in favor of a cinema of haunting compositions and dynamic narratives. Although the film is directed by newcomer Sean Durkin, some of the other names in the credits show the evolving filmmaking collective: a producer of the film is Antonio Campos, who shot the haunting surveillance thriller Afterschool, and that film’s director of photography Jody Lee Lipes also create haunting shadow filled frames here. But here it is Mr. Durkin, as well as his impressive cast led by Elizabeth Olsen, that leads what is an intensely intimate character study in the guise of a mystery that does less conventional scares and more spine-tingling chills.

            The four names of the title sound confusing, but become quite clear as we meet Martha (Ms. Olsen) when she walks out of a strange group of young people she has been living with and back into the life of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a more conservative woman with a British husband (Hugh Dancy) with no tolerance for antics. Martha is obviously scarred and mentally damaged, unable to speak about her two year absence in the Catskills, bordering on the line of uncivilized as she attempts to readjust to something similar to a normal life (she finds it quite normal to go sleep in Lucy's bed while her and her husband are in coitus).

What happen to Martha, or was her name Marcy May? Mr. Durkin, who also wrote the script, plays loose with his mystery as he edits back and forth through Martha’s shattered mind to her time at the cult-like institution she left at the beginning of the narrative. The details and specifics of the family she joined are kept to a minimum but involve cleansing the body, separation of men and women, and some disturbing elements better left to the film’s quiet reveals. The men and women spend their time taking care of house work all under the auspicious of their leader Patrick, played by John Hawkes, who decides Martha will now go by Marcy May (the name Marlene is one of the subtle and haunting surprises in the film). Mr. Durkin is not really making a condemnation of cults, but instead exploring a psychological portrait of a woman broken by trust throughout her life attempting and then fearing any sort of sense of opening up.

It’s more than appropriate that Mr. Durkin films this all through his intense use of close-ups throughout, which shove the characters to the sides of the widescreen frame. Mr. Durkin understands how to create fear in Martha as she can’t see outside her limited perspective, and his compositions of the frame uses negative space to create a haunting sense of paranoia throughout. The film lets small moment of dialogue and sounds repeat as the film shifts back and forth (through an excellent series of match cuts by editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier) that slowly enlighten the terrible saga Martha become inducted to and why she still fears for her life in a place of safety (Lucy’s home is appropriately open  and full of glass windows that make Martha terrified of what can see in as much as what she can see).

None of this would particularly work if the young Ms. Olsen couldn’t translate to the audience her fear at every moment needed for this film. While a very pretty young woman, Ms. Olsen makes Martha into a statement of discomfort, unable to handle the world outside and attempting to cower into her body. She does this all quite subtlety as she lets the fear build inside that she must escape whatever situation she is in and safety of any sense only a myth. Mr. Hawkes, coming off his terrifying performance in Winter’s Bone, swings between his open charming side and his controlling symbol of fear, though never through screaming. “You need to trust us, Marcy May,” she quietly explains to her at one point, but the calmness in his voice is less of a plea and more of a command. He's both a source of empathy as he sings a song to her, but there's something off and seriously disturbing about his calmness that Mr. Hawkes translates through his performance

Martha Marcy May Marlene infects so deeply though because it never cheats on its scares, which are so simple and naturalistic, and only hinted at by Mr. Durkin rather than spelled out. The details of Martha’s emotional collapse are often left in the small, quiet silences in which her mind wanders into the land of possibility. What could be out there? Will they come back? Do they know where I am? Mr. Durkin, using a minimalist score, provides only the slightest of answers that could be interpreted either way (the film could make an excellent paranoia double feature with Take Shelter). But through its infective filmmaking and quiet and haunting narrative, Martha Marcy May Marlene will leaves chills down your spine as you turn each corner, not sure who is out there, waiting for the chance to take you back under their control.


Jim said...

Mr. Labuza's use of "in coitus" is a rather sophisticated and Mellvillian use of the English language.

Were you thinking the guy from the cult was going to kill all three of them after he ran them off the road? I was waiting for that, but then the credits came up.

Were we supposed to feel empathy for her character? Because I really didn't. I pretty much blame getting wrapped up on a creepy sex cult all on her, so I think that might have ruined a lot of what the director/screenwriter were trying to accomplish.

Peter Labuza said...

I think its more ambiguous at the end—I think by that point we've completely entered Martha's tormented psyche and have no idea whether those people perhaps even exist outside of her mental state.

I definitely felt for Martha, thought certainly not in the same way we feel for characters who have simple mental states. Martha is certainly guilty, but the details Durkin reveals about her past make her more seduced by circumstances than complicit in her actions.