ADVANCE REVIEW! Martha Marcy May Marlene comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, February 21, 2012.
Too often films underestimate an audience's intelligence by explaining every minute aspect of the characters and situations within the first 15 minutes or so. Even if some movies pull that off so well you don't really notice, I still appreciate a film that doesn't aggressively hold a viewer's hand. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer/director Sean Durkin rarely answers your question when you ask it. Instead, it lets you figure it out from context and then maybe answers it later.
This method of storytelling permeates Martha Marcy May Marlene as Durkin opens his film in a rural property in the Catskills populated almost entirely by young, plainly dressed women. One of them, Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen — yeah, little sister to the Olsen Twins), runs off into the woods, quietly if grudgingly sits through a tense encounter in a diner with the man who gave chase through the trees and makes a desperate phone call. We're at this point, we're not quite sure why any of this is happening, but we should always remain patient.
Once she's safe under the care of her mildly estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her sister's judgmental English husband (Hugh Dancy) in their Whole Foods yuppie lakefront property, we gradually find out that Marcy May is actually named Martha, and she had just escaped from a cult headed by a man named Patrick. He's played by John Hawkes of the transcendent Winter's Bone, so you know he's supposed to be scary.
As Martha tries to re-adjust, she struggles with the psychological damage of her experience and the paranoia that Patrick might be coming back for her. This is where Olsen really shines, offering a performance with depth rather than just playing the easy one-note performance of shivering and distant. While Martha tries to play it casual if a bit bristly, eventually it's clear that she's freshly scabbed over, still fragile enough to break down in a moment of weakness. It's an astonishing cinematic debut for the actress, and possibly one will surely prove difficult to top.
Enhancing the performance is a sense of dramatic irony. Martha lies about her situation, telling her hosts that she's been living with a boyfriend in the Catskills, so they believe that she's just been avoiding responsibilities and bumming around. This results in the sort of conversations any young adult has with his or her parents: what are you doing with yourself, you can't live like this and so on. It's incredibly easy to identify with Martha here — our parents never know what we're really up to, so they make assumptions and judge based on what we give them. Like our parents, Martha's sister just doesn't understand. But even if she knew the truth, would she?
We learn Martha's truth through the film's frequent flashbacks to her cult life — the name change, the rape, the non-sexual abuse, the collective Stockholm syndrome disguised as sisterhood. Durkin's version of a cult surprisingly low-tech, wisely resisting the urge to devise an entire set of mythos to give the group a Heaven's Gate flair. Rather, this is a bare-bones operation, with a lantern-lit farmhouse, chopping firewood and the odd sing-along. Any frills or wild beliefs would distance the cult into the realm of fiction or, worse, entertainment.
The divide between the two worlds is an unsettling one, as Martha seems to experience more acceptance and attention in the cult than she does in her sister's home. Despite the abuse, there's far more encouragement in the farmhouse than the lake house, where you can totally tell the sister's reaction to "I was in a psychologically, physically and sexually abusive cult" would be a handful of meds. Which obviously doesn't excuse the evils of the cult, but it's easy to see how someone can fall for organizations like that if the alternative isn't exactly nurturing, and part of the conflict is Martha struggling as a person who doesn't seem to belong to world.
That sense of reality is bolstered by Durkin and DP Jody Lee Lipes' subdued cinematography, which uses quite a bit of natural light for an extra realistic effect. The editing is economical, relying on long takes full of subtly dynamic (but not flashy) camera movements and gorgeous composition in lieu of needless cutting around. The camera is often handheld, but never so jerky that it calls attention to itself. This is a film that proves naturalism and grit doesn't have to be technically shoddy.
As we get further away from the cult, we see Martha's paranoia escalate, coming to a head in the film's final scene. It's most pulse-pounding conclusion I've seen in years, giving viewers a brief but potent taste of what Martha must feel like every single moment since her escape. It's an abrupt ending, but far more perfect and satisfying than a tidy resolution could ever be. It's a response that the entire horror genre wishes it could evoke.
The DVD version of the film comes with a valuable bonus in the form of Mary Last Seen, a short film made during Martha's preproduction that serves as a thematic prequel of sorts. It doesn't necessarily feature the same cult, even though the two films share an actor, but it shows how an average girl like Martha can get mixed up with a weird rural cult. From my own experience I'd say one would get the most out of Mary Last Seen by watching it after Martha Marcy May Marlene, but that doesn't make it any less worthwhile.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an indie drama that most viewers outside of critical circles probably missed last year, which is an even bigger shame once you realize what 2011 films are getting all the awards show attention. Regardless, the haunting, harrowing Martha Marcy May Marlene delves into fears and uncertainties far too unpleasant for a prestige picture to ever approach.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic
or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.