Going, going, gone:
Martha Marcy May Marlene

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: A woman on the verge…

Martha Marcy May Marlene might be Sean Durkin’s debut feature, but it plays like the work of a seasoned auteur. Developed from his Cannes-winning 15-minute short, Mary Last Seen (2010), this tightly constructed psychological thriller features some standout performances; unsurprising, given Martha is comprised of the kind of writing and characterisation actors dream of sinking their teeth into.

Durkin’s film follows eponymous (anti)heroine Martha (a thoroughly enthralling Elizabeth Olsen—yes, younger sister of the Full House twins) through her escape from a cult group, and chronicles her attempts to deal with the immediate after-effects of leaving. Sneaking away from the farm/compound and calling out of the blue, she can barely bring herself to ask her sister to come and get her. What follows is Martha’s slow recollection, which parallels her slide into mental and emotional breakdown while Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) look helplessly on. The film’s title refers to three identities poor Martha has had to juggle over the last few years, the context of each revealed at various points in the narrative. ‘Martha’ is her actual name to which she reverts in the present day of the film. (I’ll leave you to discover the origin of the other two.)

Olsen really must be commended for her performance, which should make a few important industry types stand up and take note. She captures a fluid mixture of natural cheerfulness, conflicted submission, inner strength, and uncertainty, which gives truth to Martha’s deeply damaged character. Even in her interactions with her sister and brother-in-law—which range from blithe to evasive, inappropriate to angry—there is an uncomfortable honesty. This is well illustrated when Martha complies to everyday requests from the unsuspecting familial pair (even thought they don’t see the behaviour for what it is) with an overtly submissive bearing. The support cast do their jobs well with John Hawkes a particular standout; as magnetic in Martha as he was as Ree’s uncle Teardrop in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010). Sarah Paulson plays the concerned sister creditably, giving the character an air of unresolved guilt and mild desperation in her attempts to be a saviour to her long lost sister while Hugh Dancy’s Ted comes over as equals parts inconvenienced and privately lecherous, adding another layer of paranoia to Martha’s story. The various members of the cult we see in her flashbacks generally serve to bring forth a particular part of Martha’s character progression, more than becoming fully formed characters in themselves, but achieve their character goals with conviction.

Cinematographer duties are filled by Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (reviewed here). His framing and light decisions help to give Durkin’s picture a slightly off-kilter tone, in sync with the film’s dramatic tenor, without ever getting surreal. I felt a noticeably Dardenne-like flavour to proceedings in Martha. Perhaps it’s the handheld point of view shots—as in Martha’s flight from the compound through the nearby forest evoking Lorna’s flight from danger at the end of Lorna’s Silence—the fixation, both visually and narratively, on a single central character’s dialogue and physical body, or the working-through-personal-hardship arc that is Martha’s story too. Though, in his Indiewire interview at Sundance in January, the director claimed that Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Altman’s 3 Women (1977) were key influences.

One aspect of the film that struck me is the way in which Durkin models Martha’s narrative journey upon the protagonist’s own interior journey. The movie’s action is composed of present day scenes of Martha at her sister’s holiday home (somewhere in Connecticut), intercut with chronologically arranged flashback scenes of her time with Patrick and his ‘new family’ at the compound. It is hard to pick whether the character cannot remember what happened to her until she has her flashbacks, or whether she simply doesn’t want to, or can’t, talk about her experience. Whatever the case, her flashbacks get more and more disturbing (as you’d expect) the closer the memories get to her time of departure; memories eventually end up overlaying her reality for short periods, causing her to strike out at her sister and brother-in-law who are quickly realising that there are some serious mental issues going on. It is like the director is daring us to make a call on whether her fear induced paranoia is just that, fear, or if in fact her family is indeed in danger from Patrick and co. without being aware of it. The confusion, fear, and tension which is Martha’s reality becomes the cinematic structure and tone of the feature. And so we, the audience, are right there in the thick of this tangle of memory and emotion. In this way, the film resembles Lodge Kerrigan’s 2004 psychological head-trip Keane, in which we vicariously entered the title character’s paranoid state.

Durkin will surely be a director to keep an eye on as much as Olsen will be on the acting front. The combination of apt performance with strong authorial vision makes Martha Marcy May Marlene that all too rare specimen: an auteurist work which maintains mainstream accessibility. One not to miss.

‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’, Dir. Sean Durkin
USA, 2011; 101 minutes
Featuring: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.