Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

John Hawkes and newcomer Elizabeth Olsen in Sean Durkin's twisty, tricky psychological thriller.

There is something peculiar about Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) in her debut film “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” She is beautiful in a natural, unforced way – her face is rounded and her features soft, yet there remains something severe about her, perhaps in those striking blue eyes. The camera never quite seems to capture her in the same light from one scene to the next; it’s almost as if there’s two or three slightly different actresses all playing the same role.

Whether this formlessness is an intentional manipulation by the director and cinematographer or a natural quality of Olsen’s looks, the shape-shifting effect is a valuable asset to Sean Durkin’s first feature, a sparse, clever psychological thriller. As the film’s title makes clear right off the bat, our protagonist Martha is going to be a difficult character to pin down. When we first see her, Martha appears to be peacefully living in some sort of commune with a number of other young men and women, although right away we can sense something is off: the women only sit down to eat once the men have completely finished their meal. Before long, Martha is quietly slipping off into the woods, desperately fleeing this community. But the whole time, Olsen’s face remains illegible – there is anxiety, and panic, to be sure, but her concern seems rooted even deeper than just the fear of pursuit. This girl has been trying to run away from something her entire life.

Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who retrieves Martha from upstate New York and spirits her to an upscale lake home in Connecticut. Martha is clearly troubled and distant, but is either unwilling or unable to explain what has happened to her, leaving Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) frustrated. But the viewer is granted access to Martha’s troubled mind, in the form of flashbacks to her time at the farm in New York. That odd community turns out to be a cult led by the quietly charming, terrifyingly persuasive Patrick (John Hawkes), who coaxes loyalty (and more) out of his damaged, vulnerable followers.

Hawkes is invaluable here, as he was in “Winter’s Bone,” for his ability to suggest a layer of hidden menace without telegraphing his intentions. You can see how a man like this could slowly but surely bend these young people to his influence, planting his ideas in their heads without their even knowing it; it is he who changes Martha’s name to Marcy May (Marlene is the name the female members of the cult all use to answer the telephone). What’s in a name, you may ask: in this case, a name is control. Without even a proper name, Martha drifts along, rudderless. As she stares blankly into a mirror at Lucy’s house, we see that this girl is more a palimpsest than a person, just waiting for someone to come along and scrawl a new identity onto her. Though she has been removed from Patrick’s vicinity, his writing has not yet been erased: Martha still spouts his anti-materialist philosophies, even directly parroting Patrick’s lines at some points.

The flashbacks to the cult are often not clearly delineated from the lake house: past and present bleed into each other, as they do inside Martha’s mind. The effect on the viewer is unsettling – there are moments we are not sure when or where the action we are witnessing is taking place. Durkin and his editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier are confident and playful in these transitions, using seamless form cuts to establish a very flexible sense of reality.

At some point, however, all this teasing feels slightly unsatisfying. Martha and Lucy have a series of obscure conversations about their past: it is clear that the two sisters have endured some sort of past trauma together, but the film dances around the exact nature of that suffering. Has there been abuse in the family? Death? Whatever happened, Lucy seems to have escaped sooner than Martha – the sisters apparently haven’t seen each other in several years, and Martha is much further gone than Lucy can comprehend. She and Ted live in a protected world of boating and pinot noir and cocktail parties on the verandah – Martha’s bizarre antics shatter their bubble (at one point Martha climbs into Lucy and Ted’s bed while the two are in the middle of having sex), and their priority is not so much to restore Martha’s mental health as it is to get back to their balanced, perfect little life. So we get no one who is actually willing to probe deeper into Martha’s pain. We are chilled and frightened by Martha’s circumstances, but without an avenue to identify with her on any more profound layer, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” does not provide the kind of haunting experience that sticks with you hours after the show (see: Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch).

Still, the film is an extremely promising debut for its young core of talent. Durkin’s inventive structure reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s early films; like “Following,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” might be a little too caught up in its own cleverness to be really significant, but it shows a filmmaker confident and a bit brash when it comes to his own creativity, a recipe that could certainly produce something on the level of “Memento” very soon. And Olsen is a revelation; her curious looks and subtle changes in expression give her an effortless, lingering screen presence. Paulson and Dancy are serviceable, but it’s the slick veteran Hawkes that provides the glue to hold these fresh elements together: without such a convincing threat lurking in the back of our minds, the film would fall apart. But it holds, and twists, and turns, to our entertainment.

Out on DVD in late February.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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