Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Martha Marcy May Marlene A Tongue Twister
Posted by Courtney Small
If there can be one thing said about 2011 it is that it was a great year for actresses. Films like Melancholia, Meeks Cutoff, Another Earth, Hanna, and The Help, just to name a few, all showcased fully realized female characters. Martha Marcy May Marlene is another film that falls into this category as it features one of the best breakthrough performances of the year.
The film’s title, Martha Marcy May Marlene, refers to the names that the lead character Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) uses over the course of the film. After two years of living in a cult-like community, Martha flees the group and goes to live with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). As Martha struggles to adapt to life with her sister, she becomes increasingly paranoid that Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of the cult, and the rest of his disciples will track her down.
For a feature film debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite an accomplishment for director Sean Durkin. He effortlessly creates an atmosphere of paranoia through only a few key scenes. It is a smart choice on his part to have Martha drift between the present and memories of the past. Not only is this useful for explaining Martha’s life within the cult, but it forces the audience to question whether Martha’s paranoia is causing her to go insane.
Elizabeth Olsen is outstanding in the role of Martha, it is fascinating to see her run the gambit from naïve newbie at the compound, to cold calculated believer, to lost soul trying to find her way. By time she reaches Lucy’s home Martha is a walking contradiction of ideals. On one hand she wants to rid herself of the cult life, however, she cannot shake the brainwashing. This is what makes her attempts at assimilating into Lucy’s “normal” life, which Martha deems as excess, so complicated. John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson also give strong performances. Hawkes is mesmerizing as the manipulative leader who manages to justify criminal acts, such as robbery and rape, as being for the overall benefit of the group. Paulson does a wonderfully understated job as Lucy. She brings out Lucy’s complex mix of love and frustrations. She is desperate to reconnect with Martha on an emotional level and help her through whatever mental issues she is facing. However, Lucy knows that she is unable to provide Martha with the professional help she really needs.
At times Martha Marcy May Marlene falls prey to keeping things a secret for far too long. While it is obvious that the dramatic experience of the past has damaged Martha’s mental state, she never gives one ounce of information to her sister about what occurred. Even when she is in a dreamlike-state of confusion as to whether what she is experiencing is the present or the past, Martha never opens up about what she did or saw. There are times when the film would have benefitted from not having so much left unsaid. However these are minor quibbles in a film that is otherwise engaging from beginning to end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the indie gems of 2011.