Friday, 10 February 2012

FILM REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

“You don’t know if you’re going to be in the lake house or the cult.” I had read Sundance 2011 favourite Martha Marcy May Marlene was adept at blurring the line between dreams and reality, but had been intrigued by this statement and what was meant by it. Could the film be so delirious? Yes is the answer: clever film making from first time writer/director Sean Durkin means transition from each scene is like a blink of an eye, or indeed a trigger of a memory: particularly the impact déjà vu has on a person. More than once our heroine is mundanely going through her day when a moment – jumping into water, chopping vegetables – triggers an unsettling flashback from her former life.

Firstly before I start my premise spiel, can I just say one of the many things I loved about this film: it just starts. Right in the moment. Instantly, you’re in: there’s no pitter patter of adjusting to a new character, what they do, where they live – there’s no set-up at all, no three minutes of pretty graphics and opening credits to get you comfy. BAM – something’s happening, so get your brain in gear and keep up. Not that MMMM is particularly difficult to follow or zooms along at some electric pace: quite the opposite in fact. It’s dreamy, hallucinogenic -but never becomes disorientating.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from the commune where she has been living for the past two years. I say 'escapes', as the moment she leaves and disappears into the surrounding woods, there are people after her. She manages to get into town, but even then she is tracked down by one of the members, Watts, who curiously lets her do her own thing (more on this later). She phones her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who immediately asks her where she is so she can come get her. Martha is taken back to the lake house where her sister and husband (Hugh Dancy) are staying for the Summer. Martha tells her sister – whom she hasn’t spoken to in two years – that she was living with a boyfriend before she found out he lied to her and she left. Lucy accepts this, but Martha’s strange behaviour over the next few weeks makes her question more and more what really happened to her sister. We as viewers, see Martha struggling in her new environment, haunted by her life as Marcy May at the commune, which through flashbacks is revealed more and more as a ghastly and brainwashing cult led by charismatic creeper Patrick (John Hawkes) where she was not only raped, but complicit in the rape of other girls. Her response to family life is bipolar in the extreme: sometimes seeming happy and well adjusted, sometimes erratic and misjudged, sometimes insane and violent. She becomes convinced the cult members have followed her and are trying to take her back. After a dinner party turns nasty, Lucy and her husband have no choice but to take Martha into a facility in the city where she can get help.

Soooo much to say.

The film is so beautifully shot, it’s like a hazy pink sunrise and sepia mix. Wispy poster:

From the rural dimness of the farmhouse where the cult lives to the open spaces and deep colours of the lake house, the cinematography matches Martha’s situation but never allows you to feel at ease: there always feels like there’s something lurking just out of shot. The film is a snapshot in the mind of a very troubled girl: but what we see is only what Martha (and director Sean Durkin) allow us to see. We don’t know why and how Martha ended up at the cult: we get a flashback to her first day, but not how she got there. We’re also told very little of her past, apart from her mother is dead and she never finished college. We can only assume from fragments that Martha has been disturbed for some time and this is one of the reasons why she has been drawn into the cult. There’s a moment – after leader Patrick rapes her for the first time – where another girl sits down and tells her that “it was a very special occasion, and she should feel really lucky – I would give anything for my first time again.” Martha stares back at her, and you just want her to shout, “YOU ARE BRAINWASHED AND I HAVE JUST BEEN RAPED” but she doesn’t, and she comes to believe everything she is told.

The reasoning behind her fourth name – Marlene – gives the only explanation for how she could have ended up there: when anyone rings the farmhouse, members are told to answer as either “Marlene” (for girls) or “Michael” (for boys), ask for a name and hang up. There is also a moment where Watts drives a new girl to the farmhouse, suggesting they ‘recruit’ by preying on the young and vulnerable and offer them a phone number for a way out of their problematic lives into a “safe place”. That’s what’s so alarming about this film and the cult – it is all manipulation and coercion rather than forcing anyone at their will. Indeed when Martha escapes, and is accosted by Watts at a coffee shop in town, he doesn’t drag her back to the farmhouse, but let’s her “come back when she’s ready.” He must clearly be aware she is going back to her family, but his unconcerned response leads to a more chilling deduction: members who escape always come back, it’s just a question of when. And indeed instead of putting the past behind her, something makes Martha pick up the phone and call the farmhouse when she’s with her family. She’s terrified they are coming back for her, but she is also helpless to her own connection to the cult.

Elizabeth Olsen is just riveting to watch. She throws herself fearlessly into the role, delivering a performance as affecting as it is subtle. I just love the moment when she's on the pay phone to her sister who tells her "just tell me where you are and I'll come get you", and she distractedly but ominously replies, "I can't wait that long." She is both grimy and beautiful, arrogant and shy, free and trapped. Her range alone in MMMM has catapulted up the list on so many director's lists (and of course, she's an Olsen!). She has been neglected at all the major awards ceremonies but hopefully she can have some justice at the Independent Spirit Awards later this month, which are much kinder to the indies. John Hawkes is stand out too as the unnerving Patrick (with such bony arms). His charming coaxing but ultimately horrific persona reminded me of another recent anti-role model: John Bunting in Snowtown. Was that not a similar cult set up, there? Promising security and in his comfort justifying his inhumane actions? The scene where they break into the stranger's house who then catches them is a real shocker. It reminded me a lot of Charles Manson in that moment. There's also a disquieting moment when Marcy May, nursing one of the babies at the farmhouse, tells the new girl: "he never has girls."

As I was queueing up to get my ticket before the screening (at the lovely Soho Curzon which I now want to uproot at the foundations and transfer to Leeds, complete with all its cakes. I have never seen so many delicious cakes!) two ladies behind me proceeded to, unabashed, blurt out the ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene much to the horror of me and my friend, stood agape holding our tickets in sheer bewilderment at what had just happened. How can you just do that? Shocking. Luckily it didn't spoil the viewing too much, but you do keep waiting for - what they said - to happen. The big question being: are the cult really following her, or is it all in her head? Certainly some bits are paranoia: when she imagines stones being thrown at her window, even when she's swimming in the lake and she sees the guy sat watching her on a rock. The part where it may become real is right at the end when the car is stopped abruptly by a man walking in the road, who then proceeds to get into his own car and tail them for the last few seconds. Is that... Watts?

Haunting and riddlesome, Martha Marcy May Marlene will stay with you for days, not least for this little number:

Long worth the wait.

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