Centuries of storytelling have standardized our expectations towards the realm of realism. This doesn’t presume naturalism or raw gritty life as we know it, surely there are thousands of fantasy pieces out there. But the moment to moment standard our minds presume is that what we are seeing is actually what really occurs. There are rare examples of storytelling that play on our perception, using their literal fabric to jolt us out of our viewing comfort into the subjective world of the narrative. It’s in this tradition that Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene takes it’s lead. The lead character has multitudes of emotions; only we never actually get to hear her side of the story. Instead, Durkin offers only glimpses, occasionally without any pretense to what world of her mind we’ve entered.
Martha tells the story of a young girl who finds herself enticed by a cult-like group living in a decidedly anti-capitalist commune in the middle of the woods. Our understanding of the group comes only in bursts from Martha’s memories. She may be in the Catskills, she may be in Connecticut. What we know for sure is that the mastermind of the group is Patrick, played with terrifying uniqueness by John Hawkes (he’s becoming pro at this sort of thing). The group shares clothing and has group sex sessions all under the close watch of Patrick. Martha first goes along for the ride, even “handling” another young member as she endures a tormenting initiation. A shocking turn causes Martha to lose faith in the group and run away to her sister. Her new lifestyle is diametrically opposed to the one of the commune and the shift back to “real life” jars Martha to the brink of insanity.
The clever play that Martha pulls is remaining subjective to its main characters point of views even while putting us in the position of observer. There are few conventional signals that tell us we are seeing what Martha sees (i.e. point of view shots). Instead Durkin uses a pallet that is similarly bleak between both locations, along with similar decor to remove our sensory ability to immediately discern time and space. As the passionately disaffected Martha, Elizabeth Olsen spends most of the film in a pensive, pursed-lipped state of contemplation. We never get a sense of what she is feeling, though she does always seem to be struggling with some haunting thought. Olsen’s turn will no doubt get an enormous amount of recognition and her stoicism is actually much of the reason that the film can turn its subtle tricks. However, viewers may be desperate for more out of Martha’s character, and for good reason.
Unlike the similarly told Take Shelter, main character never openly Martha Marcy May Marlene’s lead never tries to break out of the hold deep psychosis has on her. Where Michael Shannon has the task of searching for truth behind his illness while keeping it together for his family, Olsen is afforded the ability to quietly stroll through all of her scenes. As she starts to sense the world she formerly knew may be watching her, she quietly takes it in, inflicting her sister and her sister fiance with the rage that she has brewing inside her own mind. There’s a realistic, daring nature to the handling of Olsen’s character. Unlike other sad sake indie movies where the lead walks around with a puss on their face, you do get the idea that Martha would love to break free even though she is far too trapped to allow herself to do so. Moments like her spontaneous skinny dipping shed light on a girl whose inner spirit thirsts for freedom but has been dampened and darkened but the realities of life. Neither the “real life” of her sister’s home nor the cult-like fantasy life she ran off to can escape the realities of humanity. Selfishness, sex, greed, brainwashing, conformity. Both worlds Martha enters are handled with appropriate sameness.
Durkin’s direction is handled with clever bravura. He takes time with each of his images and paints a world of burgeoning insanity that infects the viewer from the inside out. It’s a rare feat to get an audience member so deeply embedded in the fabric of the material that the character’s behaviors on-screen reflect the visceral response you have while watching. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind as good precursor to Durkin’s controlled atmosphere. The cinematography evokes Caravaggio courageousness, allowing meaningful moments to play behind the obscurity of foreground object or deep blacks. Olsen’s character spends a tremendous amount of time trying to cope with her depression the realistic way that people do. She sleeps. To thrust us into this sense of sleepiness, the images are often cloaks in true black with only small portions of the screen illuminated. Risky cinematography is the true standout of this piece.
Martha Marcy May Marlene will undoubtedly gain somewhat of a cult following (no pun). There’s a disturbing indie flare to the film that is anchored by dynamic elements within. Elizabeth Olsen announces herself as a shocking actress that everyone should watch. John Hawkes continues to be elegant in his deeply wound, guarded evil. Sean Durkin looks like a director willing to take risks with characterization and inventive cinematography. Unfortunately, the parts are greater than the sum in Martha Marcy May Marlene. There just isn’t enough to cling onto to avoid sensing this was all a bit of smoke and mirrors. A ton of conjectures can be made on the brainwashing of the cult or what thoughts might be flowing through Martha’s quiet mind, but that’s just what they are: guesses. The film, for all it’s disturbia, has a strangely disengaged quality. Until the shocker that sends Martha running from the cult occurs late in the movie, nothing really seems burning under the plot. Never do you fear that people may really be after her nor do you really understand how bad the cult was outside of the stereotype cult-like behaviors we see. Of course there’s a lot to admire in what’s left out of this film but that can’t outweigh what’s put in. What the viewer will walk away with is a strong discomforting feeling created by masterful tone and shades of something greater laying within.