Friday, March 16, 2012

Reel Low: Martha May Marcy Marlene [2011]

"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?"

So asks the lead character of her sister in Martha May Marcy Marlene, the highly acclaimed debut film from writer/director Sean Durkin. It's the clearest example of the mish-mash of reality with dreams, illusions and moments of her disturbed past in this confused girl's mind. Intertwined with these traumas are the pull of the memories of an adopted family who manipulated her psyche at every opportunity and the attempts at re-indoctrinating herself with her actual family in the "real" world.

Martha May Marcy Marlene is a cult film. Not of the Russ Meyer or Roger Corman variety, though. No, this is a movie depicting an ACTUAL cult, tucked away on an isolated farm in the mountains of New England. This is immediately apparent as we watch the men of the commune, led by a quietly forceful man named Patrick, eating dinner as the women gather along a nearby staircase, waiting until they finish so they can eat.

Shortly thereafter, we get our first glimpses of Martha on her own - attempting to run away from her second family. In her desperation to escape, she calls her sister, Lucy, who she has not spoken to in two years. While at her luxurious home, we are told some vague morsels of her troubled youth that eventually led Martha to be swept up by the promise of a better life with Patrick and his followers.

Throughout the film, we see what Martha sees. Or, more accurately, what she thinks she sees. The present and past are jumbled for Martha, complete with all the confusing horror the resulting illusions have turned into for her. Durkin weaves the events running through her mind with deft transitions - jumping into the lake behind her sister's home turns into leaping off a cliff into a spring in the woods surrounding the farm, or while apologizing to someone while preparing dinner on the farm turns into exasperation for her sister as she can't figure out who Martha is speaking to as they are cooking a meal. They're small moments, but easing away from her old life to this new reality is a slow process for Marcy after the mental abuse she endured under Patrick's spell.

This is the first appearance of Elizabeth Olsen, and what a debut it is. As Martha, she embodies all the complex nuances of a mentally traumatized girl. It's nearly impossible not to feel sorrow for all the ordeals her character has gone and will continue to go through. All the buzz surrounding her work on this movie is well deserved.

Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson has all her WASPy glory on display here as Martha's elder sister Lucy. Along with her British husband (played by Hugh Dancy) in tow, she is firmly positioned amid the lifestyle of the 1%, and her existence could not be in a more different place than Martha's. Eventually, her attempts at understanding give way to frustration and dismissive aggression towards her troubled sister. Coupled with the fact that Martha refuses to explain her past horrors, Lucy simply cannot comprehend her sister's actions (often, but not always, with good reason). It's a wonderfully written character, one who you are both sympathetic toward and enormously frustrated by.

And then there's John Hawkes, who may have delivered his best performance yet in an already stellar career (highlighted by Deadwood, Winter's Bone and Eastbound & Down). Although subdued and earnest, his take on cult leader Patrick is nothing short of monstrous as he manipulates everyone on his compound, from raping impressionable girls to belittling the young men in his stead and intimidating anyone else in his way.

Martha May Marcy Marlene is simply an excellent movie, and I suspect it'd be just an intriguing even after additional viewings. Had I seen this movie before the end of last year, it would've earned a spot on my Best Films of 2011 list.

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