Saturday, 7 January 2012

“Careful, Martha, you’re treading on thin ice”

Martha Marcy May Marlene: directed and written by Sean Durkin
Aaaaah, the ups and downs of cult living. Really, Martha Marcy May Marlene is terribly insular in its presentation of its eponymous lead’s journey away from, but not necessarily out of, cult living. And, it’s not so much a definitive criticism of Durkin’s presentation of the film and its issues, and it is a general observance of the way he decides to establish said issues. With the very idiosyncratic name of Martha Marcy May Marlene you would expect, and you would be accurate in that expectation, that Sean Durkin’s first feature would harbour a stout relationship with its lead character and her machinations. Even though the first three minutes, or so, tell us otherwise. Sort of. For, the opening presents us with an eerie calm – a house somewhere in the backwoods. The men eat dinner, while the women wait on the step to enter when the men leave. And, because it’s her film, Martha is the first person to appear in a prolonged shot on her own. Most persons approaching the film probably have done so for the much fêted performance of the young Elizabeth Olsen in the lead, and although we don’t know her Martha yet we’re immediately struck by how haggard, sad and unhappy she is. It’s no surprise, then that we soon see her making her away from this…whatever it is. A nervous departure, a fractured call to a sister, and away we go. But, we never actually leave.
The film takes place on two planes. In the present, Martha tries to assimilate herself with society and in the past we see her descent into the life of the cult headed by the dubiously effective, but not altogether charming Patrick played by John Hawkes. I don’t think it’s fair to critique movies for being occasionally implausible especially when the very arc reveals itself to be rooted in the incredible. For all its interest in its protagonist Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a character study. It is, instead, an observance of Martha at too protracted periods in her life. Durkin uses his camera well, murkily shot when necessary, injecting personality with the photography, finely edited so that we might mistake these technical attributes for actual insight. But, the film doesn’t offer much in the way of that. As I said, it is not a study neither is it an observation. It is an observance, never detached, but still apart. It’s a telling crutch of the film, for we never really know Martha in the same way her sister does not. Who was she before she was inducted in the cult? What led her to that induction? Without such essential perspective what I end up with is a successful unsettling spectacle, but one from which there is little – if any – cathartic worth from this tragedy.
And, is it even a tragedy really? The average contemporary audience would immediately find the cult distasteful, and with its rape, drug-use, apparent brainwashing, misogyny, larceny and murder it probably is. But, I’m curious as to what effect Durkin is hoping to move to when the ostensibly off-putting activities of the cult are complemented by an air of easiness and calm unlike the very uptight portrait of middle class established by her sister and her husband. Then, buoyed on by Martha’s rudimentary psychological jabs accusing them of pretentious living I sort of wonder what the point is. I wouldn’t doubt that we are to believe that Martha has grown so effete on the farm that she has been completely brainwashed, but the situation is addled when Martha diverts between holding staunchly on to principles of Patrick and in seeming fearful that he’s trying to get her. It’s altogether possible, though, that in her state of mental anguish Martha is herself, unsure of what she thinks and believes. Still, the motional poignancy is lost because we don’t know either, and we care for her difficulty in assimilation simply because it is a miserable existence, not because we hope for her to return to the girl she was. Whoever that was.

Despite my admittedly flip opening sentence, Martha Marcy May Marlene is not really a cult film, or at least Sean Durkin tries to avoid making it into a cult film. I appreciate his intentions, and yet had Durkin taken more than observatory glance at the cult the film might have been a bit tighter. It’s strange, half of the film is spent in the flashbacks, but we learn an alarmingly little amount of the cult. John Hawkes (very effective here) is gripping, but not altogether charming so I’m not sure what to make of the generally invisible iron grip he wields over his flock. And, when the final reveal of the depths of the cult’s depravity arrive it feels simply like a plot point meant to thrust Martha to leave it and not an organic development of its existence. Thus, ultimately, the creation of the entire cult feels real only on a surface level, and thus not very real at all.
So, with a story that succeeds mostly on the superficial level we’re left with acting and technicalities to hold on to. And, I have to stress that Martha Marcy May Marlene is not necessarily bad for its thinness in story. Story is not everything, and film works for what it is quite well. Again, Durkin’s skill with the camera is particularly good although it is not soon before I get a bit exasperated with him for the coyness is moving from the past to the present and back hoping to elicit, what I assume, to be a parallel between the lake-house and the farm. We get it, “normal” society is just as cultish as an actual cult. But it only plays up the shallowness of the film’s ideology. Which leaves us with the performances, with are across the board successful. Olsen, perhaps, is not as marvellous as I would hope which is not her fault since there is no place for her to move with the rigidity od the script, but she works. As does Hawkes and Dancy, the latter with a more difficult the role the former with a better performance. It’s Sarah Paulson, though, who is the acting standout for me, avoiding the harshest edges of the character and turning in a performance that’s surprisingly moving. And, I say surprisingly because I did after the way that the film dances across its issues cold and very thinly realised I did not expect for any performance to be as emotionally robust. It is, chilling, disturbing, but navigating on a plane that cherishes the obvious more than the profound. Again, this is not an insult. It is what



CS said...

The film definitely leaves a lot up to the viewers own interpretation. Despite the issues I had with the fact that so much is left unsaid in the film, I did really enjoyed it overall. I thought Olsen, Paulson and Hawkes were terrific. I can see your point about the limitations of the script in regards to the Olsen's performance, but I thought she overcame that obstacle rather well.

Dan O. said...

This worked for me when it came to the acting but when it came to the writing and plot, for some reason this film just didn't do it for me. I felt like the writing was too repetitive and the whole idea of cults seems very freaky and creepy but they didn't really play that up all that much here which could have really worked. Good review Andrew.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this movie and I think it absolutely is a character study and little more. It's supposed to get us in Martha's mind and then leave us lingering in it when the movie ends. Frightening and haunting all around.

Paolo said...

I had less of a problem with the film's point that 'normal society is cult-ish,' as admittedly shallow as it is, because I kinda agree with it. Although I understand and almost agree with the other flaws you see. I'm just too chicken to admit it.

Jose Solís said...

This movie was made to leave people paranoid after watching it. I wish Ron Howard had had the balls to do something similar with his stupid Beautiful Mind.
Insanity rarely looks as dreamy as it looks in MMMM.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cs she did overcome it, really, a bad actress could have been horrible repetitive. but i wasn't as thrilled as i'd have liked, which is of course not her fault. curious to see what she does next.

dan i didn't mind them not playing up the cult aspect, i just wish it was established in a more innovative way.

marshall it is haunting, but i tend to be feel it's miserable for the sake of it.

paolo oh, you. i don't know, though, the "society is a cult" theme is handled like such psychology 101 bs. *shrugs*

jose incidentally, it didn't leave me that paranoid...