Friday, October 28, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Sometimes, the most disturbing horror films are the ones where the monsters aren’t visceral or supernatural. They are the ones who you encounter on the streets, in the guise of seemingly decent human beings, who promise security, comfort or whatever else you think you need, in the form of a warm smile and a kind demeanour. Long after you encounter these people, once they have burrowed their way into your subconscious, you will find yourself still tormented by them as they ravage the tissue-like confines of your psyche.

This is what happens to Martha, the titular character in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In reality, the four names all belong to the young woman embodied by Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the tycoon Olsen twins), a recent escapee from a small but sinister cult. At the beginning of the film, we see her taking flight from the ramshackle farm the cult inhabits, where everyone sleeps in segregated but close counters. Martha has been missing for two years when she musters the courage to phone her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a well-to-due Manhattanite married to a pretentious English architect (Hugh Dancy, just the right amount of pompous), to pick her up from a remote town in the Catskills. Lucy takes Martha to her well-appointed Connecticut country cottage, a lakefront property that causes Martha to remark that it is far too much space for just two people. It is there that Martha and Lucy reconnect, although judging from their rather awkward exchanges, they may not have been all that close to begin with. Martha’s behaviour becomes increasingly shocking and may be the result of severe shock. It starts with her going for a swim completely naked in an area with a lot of family vacation homes. When Lucy and Tom make love, Martha simply climbs into bed with them because she didn’t like to sleep alone. At a dinner party with a very tony crowd, Martha has a very public and intense breakdown.

Sister act: Olsen, left, and Paulson, right
We discover that in the two years Martha has presumably spent entirely in the cult’s toxic presence, she has lost social cues and become increasingly paranoid. The cult is headed by the charismatic Patrick (Oscar nominee John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone), a leader who is less messianic than he is simply a sorcerer who has cast a particularly powerful spell on lost boys and girls. We can assume that Martha was a vulnerable and psychologically malleable teenager when she arrives at this unnamed cult, as she seems to have picked up social cues and behaviors from the orgies and brutal target practices that take place there. Patrick christens her “Marcy May” and promptly “cleanses” her by raping her while she’s sleeping. Eventually, “Marcy” becomes subtly accepting of the social mores in this collective, becoming convinced that the “cleansing” was a beautiful ritual necessary for her to reach her potential, and soon initiates another girl into the same process. She proclaims it to be a liberating and life-altering experience.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film of firsts, in particular for both director Sean Durkin and star Olsen. Durkin, who won the coveted Best Director award at Sundance for this film, floods the screen with white noise and uncomfortably long periods of silence and stillness. There is no score and the music is entirely diagetic. The effect is that we experience the events in the film, in flashbacks to the farm and in the present, the way Martha does. Durkin dispenses with easy establishing shots and instead uses light and nondescript architecture to deliberately confuse the present with the past, so that we don’t know if we are looking back to the horror of Martha’s cult experience or her current inability to process social cues in the present. While some of these shots are just a little too long, they create the sense that somehow, when things are just a little too quiet, you never know what is going to happen. The fear is never that the cult comes back to find Martha in her Connecticut hideout, but whether or not some awful memory is triggered. Martha’s mental state deteriorates so that she can no longer distinguish past from present. Her existence is one long and vividly awful morning after.

Hawkes, as the cult leader
The film’s performances are key to a script that, while well-constructed, remains free of dialogue for long sections. Hawkes brings the perfect blend of menace and charisma to the role of Patrick. He’s the sort you encounter in the bar who remembers everything you say, and when you’re sober and he finds you in public, he will recount the great conversation you had with him that you had already forgotten. In other words, he is quite possibly the worst kind of con artist, and he’s got the cult to back it up. Paulson, as Lucy, delivers ample support in the less showy sister role, but her performance strikes the perfect balance between compassion and compassion fatigue. She is constantly at odds with Martha and almost sees her as the walking dead, and rages against the dying of the light on her behalf.

Holding the film together is the magnificent Olsen, in one of the great breakthrough female roles. As the unformed and eventually damaged Martha, one never quite knows the person she was before the cult, and the audience isn’t really sure who she has become after her escape. All there is to Martha is the outline of a human being, dead to the sensations of the present day, and alive only in the vivid memories that haunt her night and day. Olsen’s fearless performance is free of vanity and, due to the sparse dialogue that falls from Martha’s lips, she carries the role like a great silent actress. Playing Martha requires a lead who doesn’t just deliver lines, but is freely expressive with her body and uses just the slightest hint of body language to convey what the script doesn’t say. She walks and stands with slightly turned-in feet, suggesting someone who blames herself far too much. She clutches her hands uncomfortably and shrugs her shoulders in just a bit to convey a lack of self-confidence. And she leans forward when ready to do battle. If nothing else, go see Martha Marcy May Marlene to see the blossoming of Elizabeth Olsen, surely a thunderous new talent in the manner of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabourey Sidibe (both Oscar nominated in their leading film debuts, do you notice a trend?), and one of the great acting discoveries of 2011.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opened in limited release in late September and expands into several markets, including Vancouver, today.