Seen through Cinecache’s Free Preview Screening at Brattle Theatre on September 27, 2011
How far will people delude themselves in order to fulfill a desired sense of worth? Whatever leads Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) to believe that joining a cult in the Catskills is the best option for her, it is clear what keeps her there through the moment she decides to flee is the feeling of belonging somewhere. It is a misguided justification from a very confused and lost young woman, drawn in by a seemingly wholesome communal setting and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the wrongdoings she has surrounded herself with. That is, until her breaking point arrives and she realizes she has to get out.
Sean Durkin’s first film, surely one of the best debut features out there, explores Martha’s time in said cult, led by dangerous patriarchal figure Patrick (John Hawkes), and what happens after she flees. The film begins with her escape. She makes a call to estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who picks her up. From there, Martha cannot acknowledge the ever-present societal disconnect she faces because she is lost inside her own head. She is unable to definitively distinguish past from present or past trauma from present safety. This inability materializes through Martha’s increasing paranoia and erratic behavior which becomes more and more worrying to Lucy and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). They have been in the dark about Martha’s whereabouts for two years. Martha does not tell them about the cult, making her behavior even more perplexing to the couple.
The film moves back and forth between Martha’s life during and after her time in the cult (where she is renamed Marcy May by Patrick). Both sections of the film have a centered location where almost all of the scenes take place. In the Catskills, there is a farmhouse everyone lives in together complete with communal duties and shared space. Compare this to Sarah and Ted’s affluent Connecticut lake house getaway. The two parts signify wildly differing environmental parallels. They also highlight her struggle to belong in either. By the time she gets to Lucy’s house, her past experiences in the life she fled are so embedded within; her ability to function with a sense of normality is compromised.
While the two lifestyles contrast each other greatly to the audience, Durkin forces Martha’s jumbled perspective at us through the disorienting fluidity between time periods. Martha’s mental state is a mess, and we experience her jumbled perception of time where all experience and trauma coexist. Thus, the camera focuses close on Martha enough for it to take time for the audience to discern which time we are in. This structure proves how much can come of fiddling with narrative. Everything we see means that much more through parallel storytelling. Martha’s inner psyche is transferred to the audience and there is an even more layered characterization through the juxtaposition and how segments are thematically paired together.
In case it is not clear by now; I loved this film. It is unsentimental and harrowing. It is a sin to have gone on this long without mentioning Elizabeth Olsen who carries this film into another realm. In her cult scenes she plays a woman eager to be a part of something, so much so that she discards common sense and allows herself to take part in some truly unsettling activities. Olsen shows layers of conviction, susceptibility and hesitancy through an additional heavy layer of necessary ambiguity. Post-cult Olsen displays societal disconnect beautifully with her bluntness, immaturity and more importantly her train wreck of a mental state. We are inside of her head and yet she remains distant from the audience. We feel her paranoia but cannot break through. It is a performance that has been rightly hailed across the board; simply put, she nails it.
In a reliably impressive supporting turn, John Hawkes is menacing; we are taken in by him even though at the outset it is clear he is dangerous. He convinces as someone who presents his ideology as persuasive common sense. He manipulates on the basis that the people around him get their sense of self-worth from him. And we buy that Hawkes as a figure with this kind of power.
The film is first and foremost a character study and a hell of a lot can be said about Martha. As the title clearly states, this is someone going through a serious identity crisis. In addition to her incapability to reconcile her past experience, she has no idea who she is in any way, shape or form. Her identity is in its infancy. This is really nicely shone through lingering ideology the cult’s influence has on her. There are several lines of dialogue by other characters that get reiterated by Martha on later occasions; it is clear she is incredibly naÃ¯ve and cannot as of yet think for herself. The excessive flurry of near-delusional paranoia that takes her over is partly because she has too little assuredness as a human being to battle her increasingly unstable mental state.
There is something refreshing that Durkin does with his script, possibly even more so than the overall structure. An unchallenging film would have Martha begin attempts to abandon the cult after it is clear things are not as wholesome as she first thought. The film passes that point quite early on. We witness a disturbing event in the first third of the film and then watch Martha actively put the experience behind her. She allows herself to fall deep into a web of abuse, manipulation and subservience. As a character study, it says much about how alone and desperate she must be to belong if she accepts this situation upfront. As a script, it shows how unafraid Durkin is to distance the audience from relating to his main character in order to give us a much more compelling story. As a storytelling device, the groundwork for suspense exists through the thought; ‘˜If that won’t get her to leave, what will?’ And so we bite our nails waiting for what is to come.
Martha Marcy May Marlene wisely uses elements of psychological thriller to function as overtones rather than letting it suffocate the character work, which in this case it likely would have. While the film wants us to question whether or not the looming danger Martha imagines post-cult has any backbone in reality, I never truly felt she was in danger. It becomes almost even more impressive that despite this, I was still on the edge of my seat because Martha’s paranoia becomes the audience’s paranoia. As we learn more about Martha’s experiences as Marcy May, her scenes at Sarah’s lake house fill up with more and more dread. By the end of the film, we are as tense as she is.
The characterizations outside of Martha tend to be on the broader side, particularly when it comes to Lucy and Ted. The parallels inherent in the juxtaposition say a lot. Yet Lucy’s characterization is hammered home a bit too overtly at times to allow us to see her as a human being, even though she is the only other character Durkin gives individual perspective to. The other character that takes the audience into explicit ‘˜okay we get it’ territory is fellow cult member Zoe (Louisa Krause). There are a couple of scenes that go too far with dialogue in showing the cult members’ universally skewed mindset. That mindset is inherent in the actions and there are a few statements that Zoe makes that are a bit much and are not needed.
Sean Durkin is one to watch out for. How many debut features are this refined? He uses all of the aspects of filmmaking to the utmost. In the post-cult scenes, Martha is often shot from behind reflecting her unyielding elusiveness with Lucy. One scene in particular, Lucy asks about a bruise on her ear. The conversation is presented mainly through audio, while the camera only lets us see the side of Martha’s face. The score is used for ever-present dread. In one scene where Martha has a troublesome outburst, the music swells in a chaotic wall of free-form noise representing her overwhelming inner chaos in that moment.
The cinematography by Afterschool‘s Jody Lee Lipes is superb; quite possibly the most impressive of the year and at the very least my personal favorite. It is shot with a sullen ashen hue that evokes 1970’s cinema, hinting at sandy grain. There are so many ways a film could look visually and what Lipes comes up with here is something special.
Martha Marcy May Marlene disturbingly displays the susceptible nature of the mind and what mankind is capable of subverting through mutual groupthink. It is a complicated character study about a young woman unable to assimilate herself in any environment, and is left with heaps of traumas, sadly stubborn lingering ideologies and zero sense of self. She is a nearly broken being. Sean Durkin wrote and executed this story with staggering maturity. The complex characterization headlined by Olsen and the tension that instills the audience makes for a fearless film from a debut filmmaker.