The most horrific nightmares rarely involve being caught in a vampire’s castle or a giant monster coming out of the sea to eat us. No, the nocturnal hallucinations that distress us the most tend to be much more worldly and grounded in reality. Often these phantoms may include serial killers or drowning or the death of a family member. I imagine this is because we are aware that such events actually have been known to occur; and therefore are they most malignant. This is of course, just as true for films as well. For me, Psycho will always be scarier than, say, Lady in the Water, because the occurrences in the former seem more plausible than the events of the latter. Other movies are not so much scary as simply unnerving or disquieting. Such is Martha Marcy May Marlene. I would not call it a “thriller” per se, as the film neither moves at a quick enough pace nor contains the necessary amount of shocks and scares to actually “thrill” its audience. Instead, it takes a more nebulous, atmospheric approach to its horror. This is a film of building and building tension, growing further vexing with each slow scene. The picture delves into the morbid and unspeakable, becoming every more frigid and intense. Martha Marcy May Marlene is likely the most internally unsettling movie you will see this season.
The titular Martha, played sublimely by Elizabeth Olsen, is a 20-something-year-old girl who, after escaping from a cult group goes to live with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) at her expensive lakeside home in Connecticut. The leader of the cult group is Patrick (played by John Hawkes), a philosophical and phlegmatic, yet at once creepy manipulator who re-names Martha “Marcy May”. I imagine this is part of the brainwashing. Patrick is kind and seemingly wise, yet to us the audience he is obviously sick and narcissistic. His nefarious suggestions fall well on Martha’s wanting ears, and she buys his whole act – for a while at least.
Once away from Patrick and the other poor lemmings he influenced, Martha begins to degenerate into paranoia while her sister and brother-in-law struggle to help her out of her funk. But, as often goes in Indie movies, she refuses to tell them anything. At first, Martha is merely scared and recovering, but as time goes on, the more convinced she becomes that Patrick and the rest are watching her every move. She hears a car drive buy and assumes it’s them coming to take her away. Noises on the roof at night remind her of the way in which the group used to break into people’s homes at night to steal items needed back at the compound. Is this real? Or is it just her imagination? We are not so lucky to be told. None of this is told linearly, and the scenes jump around in time and space with nary an indication as to the switch. Sometimes Martha will be having a conversation with her sister at the same time she’s being confronted by Patrick. Perhaps this is her memory. Perhaps it is her madness.
Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) is a true gem here. She is quiet and indulges in little histrionics, yet her ability to show inner agitation as she attempts to expunge the memories of the cult is unimpeded by the tranquility of her performance. I would not be at all surprised to find her up for several awards this season, and I expect her to show up in many more films in coming years. John Hawkes (from last year’s Winter’s Bone) once again successfully creates a convincing and subtly creepy character. This picture actually shares a lot with Winter’s Bone in terms of tone and mood. The cinematography is similarly bleak and underexposed. Both feature talented young actresses in dangerous situations. I called Winter’s Bone the best film of 2011, and I suppose Martha Marcy May Marlene is cut of the same cloth.
I said before that the film avoids scares and frights in favor of building tension, yet nearing the end there are some truly shocking and incredible scenes. The suspense grows and grows as you become further mesmerized and enraptured in Martha’s plight. It ends on an exasperating note, leaving all the loose ends untied and most of the questions unanswered. For this very reason I suspect the film will have difficulty reaching a wide audience. The average filmgoer can’t handle a movie in which the story isn’t wrapped up in a nice little bundle and explained perfectly to them. Just as bad, the movie dares to move at a less than speedy rate, which is anathema to the modern American audience. The first thing you learn when you learn screenwriting is that at the end of a script the tension mounts and mounts until the final release at the end of act three. Writer / director Sean Durkin has easily dispensed with such conventions. Martha Marcy May Marlene gives no relief, offers no solace to its humbled audience.
I think it might be a flaw that the movie jumps around in time so freely. I wonder if the story could not have been told just as effectively if not more so in a linear, chronological form. However, this is a superfluous err in an otherwise excellent film. Sometimes the picture gets painfully quiet and laconic, seemingly bathing itself in subtlety. It meanders in a minimalistic way, sometimes creepy, sometimes mundane, sometimes inspiring. One of the most memorable sequences is when Patrick plays a song he’s written for Martha in which he plays a guitar and sings. You can hear a portion of it in the trailer. The tune is simple, yet haunting. Patrick’s voice is not beautiful, yet it is darkly perturbing. It is enough to lure Martha into submission. Soon she begins working with the other women at their chores and mentors a newcomer into the group. It is eerie to hear Martha repeating Patrick’s teachings to a young initiate.
While with her family, Martha’s psyche degenerates into an abysmal state of near-insanity. She takes nude swims in her sister’s extremely cold-looking backyard lake, only to find that not even in the water can she escape the influential gods of her former idolatry. Their ghosts still haunt her, and they probably always will. This is a chilling film that deserves high praise. It has its flaws, as all films do, yet not nearly enough to quibble about. Martha Marcy May Marlene revels in coldness and suspense. It is disturbing and shocking, even violent at times, yet strangely it is not repulsive, but involving and consuming. You find yourself engaged in the atmosphere and surrounded by the mire of emotions as Martha is. This will surely be a frontrunner during Oscar season.