Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Love: Martha Marcy May Marlene

When we talk about Martha Marcy May Marlene, do we speak of it in the language of its characters, or the language of the audience?  T. Sean Durkin’s film (his first) never makes explicit use of the word ‘cult’, but we know that the commune these young 20-something inhabit is just that.  Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is our protagonist’s given name.  To her biological family, that’s who she is, just Martha – a troubled girl who fell off the map.  For two years, though, she has lived docile amongst a second family as Marcy May, the name assigned her by Patrick (John Hawkes), an enigmatic, backwoods cult leader.  There’s something to the film’s unwillingness to label Martha’s experience, something which stems from the character herself.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unnerving, haunting film.  In certain respects, it’s very much a ghost story.  Here, though, instead of literal specters, we have the shadows of a too recent post-traumatic past.  Martha is haunted by her memories in a way we can’t quite understand.  She doesn’t share them with anyone.  In the opening scene we watch her as she’s chased through the woods, making her daring escape to a rural pay phone to reach out – reluctantly – to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help.   On the phone, in gasps and frantic glances, she can’t seem to decide whether to stay or to go.  It’s a sense that pervades the entirety of the film: a fear, a palpable anxiety triggered by both potential outcomes, real independent life is scary, is the cult more or less so?

 For the viewer, there’s no question which is the better option.  Within the idyllic landscape of the commune, horrible, animalistic compulsions are afoot.  It’s a bad place. Without revealing too much I can tell you that the moment Martha enters, willingly, she’s already lost any agency she has over her life.  Patrick greets her with a flirtatious name change, and in that moment she is possessed.  Martha is dead, she is Marcy May, or, Marlene Lewis when she answers the communal phone. Olsen, in her first role out from under her famous siblings’ twin shadows, has a surprising command of the screen.  As Martha, we believe her mood swings.  We can see the glimmer of the free spirit she once was, the sort whose travels would lead them to a commune in the first place, as well as the crushed, terrified little girl she’s become.  In a startling scene, Martha enters Lucy’s room and curls into a fetal position on her sister’s bed…while on the other side Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) have sex. Martha doesn’t understand what’s wrong with that picture.  This is who she is.  The film accomplishes all of its decentering with the minimum amount of histrionics or drama.  Remember: Martha never talks about her problems.  She accepts them.  She holds on to the positives and in dark moments, they pull her back.  She’s damaged goods, a psychologically battered woman who remembers faint glimmers of praise and spits them out only to hate herself in the morning.

  In her performance, Olsen seeps to captures all of the purposeful nuance and uncertainty of Durkin’s script.  She’s a cipher, a half formed person, a girl without identity or purpose.  Yet, we feel for her.  Sometimes, true, we’re also insanely frustrated by her, but we need to be.  There’s something of the best parts of Maggie Gyllenhaal about Olsen, with little of the waifish imp or humble hipster.  It says something, then, that in his supporting role John Hawkes is able to pull the focus away from Olsen.  His actions and dialogue are minimal, but Hawkes has an icy presence as Patrick.  Durkin gives us moments where the film positively crumbles in Hawkes’ presence.  His intensity is scary and, when he lies, something in us believes him against our better judgment. 

All of this, of course, is captured in an aesthetically low-fi manner.  The textures here are swiped from the palette of an old Malick film; all grass, trees, and clap board houses, none of that HD shit. The stagnant nature of its locations only seems to add to the suspense of the film. Martha barely moves, and yet her world shifts.  She’s isolated, and yet surrounded by monsters and phantoms.  Everything takes on a dark magic, a latent danger.  It’s captivating.  No less so because it forces us to consider its significance, its meaning, long after the credits have rolled.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is a powerful film with powerful performances, but it leaves us with questions.  When we psychoanalyze its multi-monikered protagonist, can we claim to understand her?  Can we pick through the wreckage of her dissolved identity and decide, one way or another, whether the film’s narrative ambiguity points towards recovery or impending doom?  Is recovery even an option?

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