Monday, November 7, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

When we meet the Martha – young, beautiful, emotional crippled – she is running through dense woods, hiding in mud and leaves, terrified that her assailants will catch up.  She finds a diner, frantically calls her sister, and is soon at her sister’s expansive lakeside home in Connecticut.  From here on, the film crosscuts between Martha’s time with a cult near the Catskills, and her time at the lake house, which is occupied by her sister and brother-in-law.

The scenes of the cult reflect the images I carved out myself while reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter.  Much like Charles Manson’s Family, the group in MMMM is run by a quiet, unassuming man (played here by the ever-impressive John Hawkes), where names are changed, women are servants, orgies are encouraged (and observed), alcohol is forbidden, and petty crime is committed to make ends meet.

What starts as a peaceful mecca for alienated teenagers, quickly grows into a place of great terror and hypnotic understanding.  This fear, mind you, is only cognizant among the few females who are able to break the spell of their leader.  Once they do escape, as the lake house story shows us, physical dread is only replaced with mental anguish.

At the lake house, Martha boasts the many taboo dysfunctions that she’s acquired over the past few years.  She doesn’t talk much, or at all, about her time at the cult, which puts great strain on her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s increasingly impatient husband (Hugh Dancy).

Now, here is where the beauty of the film lies.  Most movies that cross cut two different stories do it in a way that is very obvious.  This may be done deliberately, as to not confuse the audience, or simply because there really isn’t any other way to do it.  Only occasionally do movies use editing as an art as much as MMMM.

When MMMM cuts between its two stories, it does it in such a seamless way, that many times it’s difficult to tell exactly what story you’re in.  This isn’t confusing, mind you, it’s just part of the game.

And what a game MMMM is.  Aside from it’s smooth editing, naturally-lit cinematography and obscure use of sound (all of which play a vital role to the film’s narrative shifts), MMMM is a sneaky headtrip that deserves mention along the works of David Lynch and Michael Haneke.  The film, especially the lake house segments, can be challenging at times, but only because we’re watching something new, which is not a word often associated with contemporary films.
As the cult’s leader, Patrick, John Hawkes achieves the same malevolent fear that he did in his Oscar-nominated performance for Winter’s Bone.  Patrick is charming, charismatic, articulate and, I believe, completely insane.  His insanity doesn’t manifest itself in overt ways, it’s subtle and restrained, which is usually hard to pull off, but in Hawkes' hands, looks effortless.

Paulson and Dancy both deliver great performances of restless anguish; wanting nothing more than to help, but not having the slightest clue how.

But the real star here is Elizabeth Olsen, who, in her first feature film role, deserves all of the hyperbolic praise that is currently being thrown her way.  As Martha, Olsen is forced to change multiple times within nearly every scene.  She’s cold and indifferent, frightened and manic, she is, quite simply, a girl out of her element, trying to keep her head above water.
Olsen and Paulson
Writer/director Sean Durkin has created an emotionally raw film of awesome power.  The fact that this is his first film (he has produced a few others, including the very brilliant but tragically underseen Afterschool), only adds to MMMM’s overall achievement.

Now it gets tricky.  Obviously, I have nothing but pleasant praise to give MMMM.  That is except for its ending.  I can’t in good conscious discuss a great film’s ending here, but I will say that at my screening, the ending was met with many groans and audible snickers.  I thought once the film sank in, I would accept its climax as a good thing.  I haven’t, but that’s not to say it ruins the rest of the film.  You be the judge. A-


  1. Good stuff man. I'm really curious to hear what other bloggers have to say about it.

  2. Great review as always! You know you are reading a quality blog when words like "cognizant" or "anguish" are thrown on there without sounding too posh!I respect and admire people with a rich vocabulary, who can describe something in a beautiful way (like you do)- I can't do that at the moment, but struggling to get there!

    About the movie now, you were right, I loved the connections between the two stories, sometimes you can't really know which story you are in. I thought the direction was wonderful, new and interesting. Sean Durkin is in the same category with Steve McQueen or Nicholas Refn when it comes to directing- maybe not as good, but getting there! Olsen, flawless, Hawkes was very good as well, but didn't really hit home run for me, I don't know why!

    Oh, you didn't mention Marcy's song!Amazing- I still listen to it from time to time!

    On my list of best of 2011 movies for sure!

  3. You are too kind, my friend. In my opinion, writing is not a skill you have to be born with (like, say, being funny). What I do think you must possess is your own voice, I do not think that can be taught. I do, however, think that any person can hone in and better their writing skills. As long as you have a voice (which you do) then your writing will only improve with practice. If you go back and look at my entires from 4 years ago, they were, mostly, complete crap. At any rate, thank you so much for your compliments. It's words of encouragement like that that keep me going.

    Oh, the movie, right.

    I agree that Durkin is a great, new talent, and I'm really looking forward to his career. You listen to that song! It creeped me out! haha

    So you didn't really have a problem with the ending then?

  4. This sounds really interesting, you've got me intrigued. At first I was doubtful of it (I don't trust a film with that much alliteration in the title), but now I'm going to definitely look out for it when it arrives here.

  5. Yeah the title is a bit too cutesy, but, thankfully, the film is not. I think you'd like it.

  6. I replied in a bit more detail on my post, but I really liked the film. I actually watched it at both SFF and MIFF (and the Australian release isn't until January). Olsen and Hawkes were fantastic (and I really hope Hawkes gets an Oscar nom again), and the film is so mysterious and haunting - I had chills for almost the entirety - that I found it to be one of the most memorable experiences of the year, and the rise of a new talent in Sean Durkin.

    As for the will leave many people frustrated I think, and it can definitely be considered lazy, but personally I liked it. I think it is acceptable, given what we had seen - and I think it is a punch in the guts. It's an affecting film, and the ending reiterates that.

    The film is in my Top 10 of 2011.

    Great review, man! Glad to read you liked it.

  7. Yeah I agree with what you said here and on your site. Again, the ending was in no way a dealbreaker, and I suppose the fact that we're still talking about it speaks highly of the film.

    It'll probably grow on me.

  8. Great review, and I totally agree with most of what you said. I didn't have a problem with the ending actually (maybe you don't anymore either?) but I had heard that it was a reference to Silkwood, which I think makes sense given the context of where the film was going.

    1. Thanks man. MMMM has definitely grown on me, and I'm actually a fan of the ending now. I anticipated that that might happen.

      Shit, now I have to rewatch Silkwood.