AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | November 1, 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
Critics seem to be pretty split on Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I cannot seem to understand why. Other than its title, which I for some reason find impossible to remember, I can find very little to be wrong with MMMM. I have not read Dave Wilson’s review of MMMM yet, but I did notice that we both gave the film the same rating (a lofty 9 out of 10). I suspect that Dave W.’s review is less tangential than mine promises to be; in fact, I am opting for avoiding any discussion of the plot in order to stay completely clear of spoilers…
I know there are many readers out there who want to know more about a film before deciding whether or not to go see it, but MMMM promises to be a much more rewarding cinematic experience for those who see it with no knowledge of the film at all. Like Sophia Takal’s Green, MMMM is a film that takes on a much higher level of effectiveness when the viewer does not know what they are watching. Just imagine stumbling into a theater and watching Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby for the first time without knowing whether it is a romantic drama, a thriller or a horror film. You can only experience that feeling once, so why let a film critic spoil it for you?
As much as I enjoy the dreamlike narrative structure — especially the seamlessly surreal editing (Zachary Stuart-Pontier) — and lush cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), I think the real strength of MMMM is in its subtext. For one, is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) better off on Patrick’s (John Hawkes) commune or at her sister Lucy’s (Sarah Paulson) vacation house? To answer that, you first need to define for yourself what “better off” means. Happier? Safer? Healthier? Where does she experience more love? Where does she enjoy more freedom? Who cares for her more? Which scenario offers more transparency? No matter how you spin it, the answers are not as clear as you would expect.
Do not worry, Durkin’s film does not necessarily promote the lifestyle in Patrick’s cult — that would be like presenting a empathetic perspective of a child molester or serial killer — instead he seeks to reveal that Lucy’s household might not be as idyllic as popular opinion would suggest. As far as cults are concerned, Durkin remains cautiously unspecific about Patrick’s. There appears to be no religious elements, no common goal or purpose other than to function as a totally self-sufficient entity. We never see the proverbial “purple Kool Aid,” but there is absolutely no doubt that Patrick’s commune is indeed a cult; in fact, MMMM could totally be used as a training film for learning Steven Hassan’s BITE criteria (which can be used to define a cult).
Other than family trees and genetics, what constitutes a family has never been clearly defined. The old saying, you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your family, works pretty well in the case of MMMM. Martha is clearly forced into a situation where she must rely upon Lucy. Essentially Martha is banking on the fact that her sister will help her solely because they are siblings; their personalities, however, are like oil and water. While Martha ran off to live on a commune, Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) were living the Capitalist dream. With all of their money they have created a sterile safety bubble around them; unfortunately, in the process of doing so, it seems their humanity has been drained. Lucy and Ted are so clinically cold and calculated that when Martha tells Lucy that she would make a horrible mother, it is really difficult to disagree with Martha. It is clear that Lucy does not know the first thing about loving and caring for another human being; she is selfish and emotionally unavailable, and Martha becomes nothing more than a mere inconvenience for her. While Martha probably just needs some good old fashioned love and affection; Lucy is mentally unavailable to offer anything like that to Martha. When it comes down to it, Lucy just wants to find a Band-Aid to quickly fix Martha and send her off on her merry way.
For me, the real payoff of MMMM can be found in the ending, which is rivaled only by Meek’s Cutoff and Green in terms of sublime ambiguity. The comparisons between MMMM, Meek’s Cutoff and Green do not end there. All three films toy with the audience’s preconceived notions of cinematic genres and traditional narrative tropes, while they also rely solely upon their infinite layers of subtext to communicate their significance. Most importantly, all three films proselytize the unique power of the cinematic art form. These are stories that could never be properly conveyed via any other medium — that right there is precisely why MMMM, Meek’s Cutoff and Green are some of my favorite films of 2011.