Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Dir. Sean Durkin
Country: USA
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 102mins

“Do you ever have that feeling where you don’t know if something’s a dream or a memory”, asks Elizabeth Olsen’s deeply traumatised Martha. It’s a line that perhaps best encapsulates Sean Durkin’s fascinating debut feature about a girl who escapes a commune and spirals under the eye of a disillusioned sister. Durkin has crafted his film with such a magical, mysterious sense of fluidity where images blur into one and memories of the past merge effortlessly into the present. It is a towering achievement of construction and simmering tension that sees this heretofore unknown Olsen sister navigating a trajectory that is both tragic and deeply wounding. If We Need to Talk About Kevin was an arthouse take on the "demon seed" subgenre of horror, then Martha Marcy May Marlene takes a similar metaphysical path to a slasher flick as this one girl is slowly, but surely, chased down. Not by a physical being per se, but by the psychological scars of a hurtful society. They're coming for her, and she has nowhere to go but to hide for as long as possible until the inevitable comes.

The situation that Martha finds herself in is not entirely explained, nor delved into with any great details, she merely finds herself in the company of a commune. This cult-like place is watched over with unsuspecting menace by Patrick, played by a growling John Hawkes. The brief glimpses of this near self-serving community are initially quite placid, but much like Martha’s re-integration into society, things go wrong very quickly. The film opens with Martha making a seemingly half-hearted attempt to escape through the woods of the New York Catskills early one morning. That she is found later on but her commune brother in a nearby town is not the scary part; the scary part is that they let her go.

Sumptuously filmed by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, Martha Marcy May Marlene – the “Marcy May” and “Marlene” refer to alternate personalities that Martha adopts at various intervals – appears to be filmed through a swatch of delicate lace, as delicate as the central character even. The deep greens and blacks don’t look quite as natural and rich, but are leant an almost dreamlike quality as if seen through sleepy half-closed eyes. Continuously filmed with obstructed lines of sight, it has a visual verve that belies its origins. I am always impressed by lower budgeted films like this that are able to craft such specific tones, and along with the impressive sound work – Martha sits alongside recent titles The Turin Horse, Antichrist and Meek's Cutoff as films that have made nature sound so eerily foreboding in the cinema – Durkin has allowed the locations of his film to help shape the story rather than merely accentuate it.

The ambiguity of the ending will surely leave audiences questioning what they have or have not seen, with its quiet demeanour will ultimately prove too impenetrable for some. I, on the other hand, found its relaxed-like-molasses atmosphere to be the perfect compliment to the powerful story. The encroaching horror weaselled its way into Martha's mind as well as mine, and several scenes towards the end – in particular a disastrously unnerving dinner party sequence that should have netted Olsen an Academy Award nomination – ratchet the tension up to levels that feel inconceivable at the outset. Like the guitar that Hawkes’ magical leader strums in front of an adoring crowd, Durkin works his film’s elements masterfully, timing everything perfectly so as to create maximum impact for even the slightest of incidents. Martha Marcy May Marlene isn’t a film I shall forget too quickly, it’s hushed terrors nagging like an itch under the skin. Its final haunting passages of deeply rooted paranoia are unforgettable. A

1 comment:

Marshall1 said...

Thanks for the excellent mini-review! I'm already blown-away by this film the first time I saw it, now I have to see it again! (My friend said he almost fell asleep, but I found myself tense the whole time with an upset stomach. THAT'S how powerful the film was to me).

Who cares about the Oscar? haha. I think Olsen easily (alongside Dunst) gets my vote for best performance this year.