Talking Movies

February 2, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha, Marcy May, Marlene; the various names and personae of star Elizabeth Olsen in an intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult.

Marcy May is a young woman who in the arresting opening sequence flees a ramshackle farm at dawn and, evading the pursuit of two women and a man, makes it to the diner of a nearby town where she rebuffs the tender/menacing entreaties of that man before choosing not to return to the farm but instead calling her startled sister Lucy, who comes and picks her up. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is startled because Marcy May is a new name taken by her sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who she hasn’t heard from in two years – time during which Lucy got married to Hugh Dancy’s architect. Lucy takes the traumatised Martha to her summer place in Connecticut, but beside the paradisiacal lapping waters Martha drowns in flashbacks to her time with the cult in the Catskills ruled over by Patrick (John Hawkes).

Writer/director Sean Durkin adopts James Mangold’s trademark use of disruptive flashbacks as dialogue from the past is answered in the present and vice versa as Martha slips between her personae. You wonder what caused her to leave Patrick’s ‘family’ as you follow her growing investment in the solidarity of the cult, and Durkin lets you ask questions rather than pushing answers in your face. The answers when they come are all the more shocking for it, with one showy slow pan around Marcy May as bales of hay are gathered ending with an absolutely chilling detail as its pay-off. Lucy’s concern at Martha’s obvious mental fragility is increased by her bizarre behaviour. “Interesting choice of swimwear” is the droll comment from Dancy’s Ted when Martha skinny-dips in broad daylight in a communal lake, but her sexually aberrant behaviour escalates disturbingly.

Studio 60’s Paulson excellently layers Lucy’s relief at getting her sister back, with her guilt at having perhaps driven her away originally, and her mingled desperation and despair over curing her. Olsen makes her film debut, in a role you feel sure Maggie Gyllenhaal would have secured a decade ago, and is startlingly assured – making her character by turns naive victim and spiteful malefactor. Dancy’s compassion fatigue is well played, especially his snapping at Olsen’s jejune anti-capitalism. John Hawkes is as scary and charismatic as his memorable Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, with his performance of ‘Martha’s Song’ accompanying himself on guitar guaranteed to chill your blood. This recalls Take Shelter in its measured pacing and intensity, and even shares a tautly ambiguous ending which leaves the viewer sick with dread, but unsure whether you’re just sharing Martha’s paranoia…

Martha Marcy May Marlene may be a cumbersome title, but once you’ve seen the movie you’ll have no trouble remembering its name for your Top Films of 2012 list.

5/5

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