AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Dave Wilson | October 19, 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Louisa Krause, Julia Garner, Christopher Abbot, Maria Dizzia
The farm is still and orderly. Everyone has a role. At meal times, the men eat in silence at the dining room table, while the women wait just outside, poised to clear their bowls. The women share racks of plain, shapeless dresses, and bed down together in sleeping bags in a single cramped room.
The mood is so claustrophobic that we’re not surprised at all when one of the women awakens at first light, puts on her street clothes—a blouse and a pair of denim shorts—grabs a duffle bag and runs off into the woods.
Moments later, they’re after her. We hear their footfalls and their voices: “Marcy May, Marcy May!”
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mesmerizing, harrowing, nearly flawless film about a deeply traumatized young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a restrictive, polygamous community that is part commune and part cult.
Her name isn’t Marcy May at all, we learn. A breathless phone call reunites her with the sister she hasn’t seen in two years, who calls her Martha and takes her back to her lakefront Connecticut vacation house to recover. What happened to her? Martha is evasive. She tells lies. She will give nothing away.
Over the course of the next two hours, in a film that brilliantly interweaves past and present, we learn all about Martha/Marcy May’s extended family on that isolated farm, as she struggles to function, while repressing the memories. Meanwhile, her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) have problems of their own and Martha’s behavior—paranoid, irrational, violent—might be the one challenge their marriage can’t withstand.
Martha’s memories spill into her consciousness as isolated fragments, and we shift back and forth between her two “families” as the past and the present tense compete for her attention. Gradually, effortlessly, we become acquainted with this small circle of men and women led by Patrick (John Hawkes), an intense, magnetic patriarch who inspires fear and reverence. Patrick preys on lost souls, young runaways like Martha who’ve strayed from their families and have nowhere else to go. He assigns them roles (“you are a teacher and a leader”), “cleanses” them, and renames them. “You look like a Marcy May.”
By the end of the film we have experienced the trauma, too—the revelations, the horror. We understand the paranoia and the lasting damage. And we share the fear. We are complicit. The world outside looks a little more menacing when we leave the theater.
As Martha, Elizabeth Olsen gives a superb performance—she is numb and anesthetized, disintegrating before our eyes. She can also be brittle and stubborn, while cowering inside. This performance is so intense and nuanced and from the gut that we feel the terror that Martha feels–this lost and dislocated feeling that she no longer knows who she is.
First-time director Sean Durkin has the sure hand of a master director, establishing a mood and a psychological state through a precise orchestration of script, performance, image and sound. This is not a thriller at all. At the center is the stillness of a neo-neorealist film like Wendy and Lucy, but Durkin adds one more chord: a strain of menace and relentless tension that creates a searing and all-consuming emotional experience.