Martha Marcy May Marlene ****
Directed by: Sean Durkin.
Written by: Sean Durkin.
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), John Hawkes (Patrick), Sarah Paulson (Lucy), Brady Corbet (
Watts), Hugh Dancy (Ted), Christopher Abbott (Max), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), Louisa Krause (Zoe).
Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most striking feature directorial debuts I’ve seen in a long time. The film is a delicate balancing act, flashing back and forth in time, to show how a young woman is indoctrinated into a cult not unlike the Manson family, and then as she tries to adjust to life outside of that cult. It has two primary settings – the cult’s compound, in which the young men and women seem to be in awe of the older, seemingly wiser leader who talks in a calm, reassuring voice that makes you think everything is perfectly ok and normal – unless you actually listen to the words he is saying. The other is a vacation home owned by Martha’s sister and her husband, where they take Martha when she calls them after a two year, unexplained absence. She doesn’t tell them where she has been, and her behavior is strange and off-putting. She was too smart to stay with the cult, but they have affected her in a strange way, meaning that now she doesn’t really fit in with normal people either. Martha is an island.
Martha is played in a great lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley). The role requires her to do a lot – it’s a complex, difficult role, in which she has to go from intelligent, normal teenager girl to traumatized victim of the cult, to follower, and then begin the long slow progression out of it. To make matters more complex, the film plays with time, so that we see only parts of both her life inside and outside the cult at a time, leading up to a final, devastating portrait of a confused young woman who has no idea where she belongs, if indeed she belongs anywhere at all. It is a remarkable performance by Olson, and should make her a star.
But hers is far from the only great performance in the movie, as the supporting cast is excellent as well. Sarah Paulson is the older sister, trying to hard to understand and help Martha, but since Martha will not tell her anything more than she was off living with a boyfriend, she has no idea just how damaged Martha has become. She has patience, but only up to a certain point before she starts to lose it. Her husband is played by Hugh Dancy, and although his role is not as well developed, he does a good job of playing a bland, ordinary guy who just doesn’t get his newfound sister in law. Brady Corbet is creepily effective as the good looking front for the cult – he is the one who goes out and draws in teenage girls like Martha for the rest of the cult. And John Hawkes is brilliant as Patrick, the Charles Manson type figure, who is so calm, so assured that you barely notice how evil he is. This is the way cult leaders recruit people – not by acting crazy, but by acting rational, even when the ideas the expound are completely off the wall. Listen to a song he writes for Martha (who he dubs Marcy May), and at first it seems beautiful – the melody is sweet, but the lyrics are cruel even as they sung like a folk song. It’s brilliant work from one of the best character actors around.
Full credit must be paid to Sean Durkin, who is making his feature writing and directing debut. Rarely do first timers have such an assured hand behind the camera. They often try to cram too much into their films, but that isn’t the case here. The film isn’t minimalist, but it doesn’t push anything too far either. Yes, there are shocking acts in the film (a rape scene that is truly disturbing, a murder that comes out of nowhere), but Durkin doesn’t dwell on these moments – he isn’t making an exploitation film here, but a psychological study. It takes years for many filmmakers to gain the skills that Durkin has shown in his first film.
Martha Marcy May Marlene may frustrate some viewers. It moves with a deliberate pace – which many people will say it’s slow – and it’s climax, while in my mind is utterly perfect, will leave many audience members wanting more. But no matter. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an excellent film – an assured debut from a director I hope has a bright future ahead of him – and a star who I know does.