Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film of dramatically heightened senses, perceiving touch, sight and hearing with the anxious curiosity of a newborn. Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) years spent in a cult, fathered by the seemingly innocuous Patrick (John Hawkes), have desensitized her from the outside world. Her escape is a full-throttle assault on our senses, combining frenetic handheld camerawork, a heightened visual style and a rumbling string-fronted soundscape. The feeling of this scene is overwhelming, like stealing a sharp intake of breath after deep submersion. Indeed, the intensity of Durkin’s film cannot be understated. This is a picture of conditioned spaces and inaugural terror, repetitive cycles and unsettled awakening. The camera shadows Martha (“you look like a Marcy May“) as she reassembles her life, seeking refuge with concerned sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her frustrated husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), rhythmically flitting back to her memories of life on Patrick’s farm. In many ways, like the upcoming Take Shelter (Nichols, 2011), the film can be viewed as a horror, albeit an intensely personal one about the confrontation of inner demons.
Durkin’s film is really remarkable for expressing so much disquiet without ever engaging, explicitly, in the exact ritual of Patrick’s self-made family. It appears that he recruits young girls into his spacious barn home, allowing them to settle in and then raping them when they feel comfortable. Another girl will reassure the young victim, telling her that it’s all part of the “sharing process“, and that the family will have to be open to one another in order to live harmoniously. Most doors are kept closed on the farm, and interiors are largely shot in obscured close-ups. Everyone finds their place eventually, whether it be washing dishes or looking after the children (disturbingly, they may all belong to Patrick). Durkin’s directorial sensibilities are greatly restrained, and he evokes a troubling atmosphere through the use of photography and music. In one scene Patrick sings to the group, delivering a haunting rendition of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Marcy’s Song‘. It starts off romantically (“well she’s, she’s just a picture“) but as the actor narrows his gaze and the lyrics shift toward something darker (“her dripping, ripping down your hands“) we gain an insight into Patrick’s dream for the farm. It’s a disturbing vision, and we never feel safe in his presence again…
Hawkes has been a commanding presence on the American indie scene for some time now, and he turned the Academy’s heads with his supporting role in last years Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). His performance here is layered and affecting, constantly challenging the expectations of an audience. In one scene he approaches Marcy, who is being trained to use a gun, and instructs her to shoot a cat. “You’re a teacher and a leader Marcy, now prove it.” He delivers the line with such calm that we begin to wonder what Patrick is really capable of. Has he killed before? His psychology is never probed, and for once that’s a good thing. We get to feel for the character but never understand him; he’s just a blank slate. Olsen is also incredible in her first leading role, turning in a raw, naturalistic performance that never hits a false note. Her portrayal is also a layered one, and the actress slips inside a state of fear and unease, proving herself as a magnetic screen presence.
I’ve allowed the film to settle in over two weeks before writing this review, and many of my initial problems with it now feel less significant. The screenplay, written by Durkin, does have its tin-eared moments, and some of Patrick’s dialogue is laughably artificial, especially a speech about the cycle of life and death. It feels too much like the director is trying to shoehorn a bigger idea into the picture, but it just gets lost among the smaller, more intimate moments. My other problem was with the films final minute, and this has caused division among my fellow critics. Durkin employs a stunning wide shot to observe Martha as she swims in a lake. The frame is disconcerting in its quietness, and DP Jody Lee Lipes darkens the palette, lending the lake an oily quality; below the rippling surface it appears black. We stay in this shot for an uncomfortable amount of time, and the dense woodland begins to envelope the viewer. It’s a perfectly ambiguous note to end on but Durkin follows it up with two extra shots. To me they’re unnecessary, but they’re certainly not enough to stop me from recommending the film. It’s a hauntingly subdued piece of work, heralding great things for both its director and star…
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Runtime: 101 minutes