Friday, September 07, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Written and directed by Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a young woman who returns home to live with her older sister after being in a cult for two years.  Trying to return to normal life, the young woman struggles with her new surroundings as she‘s haunted by her time with the cult.  Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, and John Hawkes.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting yet evocative film from Sean Durkin.

After leaving a cult in the middle of the Catskill Mountains, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finds herself in a small town as she calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) whom she hadn’t seen or talked to in two years.  Lucy picks her up as she lets Martha stay at a lake house in Connecticut with Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) who are there on vacation.  Lucy is bewildered by Martha’s behavior as she does odd things around the house while being very secretive about her time with a cult that is led by a man named Patrick (John Hawkes).  Martha reflects on her time with the cult where she was called Marcy May as she struggles to re-introduce herself to society.  Paranoia would eventually seep into Martha’s mind as it starts to take a toll on Ted and Lucy as things eventually come crashing down.

What happens to a young woman who had disappeared for two years as a member of a cult as she tries to return to a normal society?  That is what writer/director Sean Durkin asks in this very compelling film about a woman lost in her surroundings as she seeks to find help in her older sister.  Yet, she is haunted by her time with the cult that involved all sorts of things including theft, manipulation, and violence as she was the favorite of this ominous cult leader.  Her odd behavior towards her surroundings in Lucy’s lake house would eventually cause tension between herself, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband Ted.  Even as Ted would try to do something to help Martha only to become frustrated with Lucy struggling to deal with her loyalties.

The film’s screenplay features a narrative that moves back and forth from Martha’s time with the cult to her time with Lucy and Ted.  Even as the script would allow scenes to parallel with one another as it would eventually play out Martha’s struggle to be normal.  The screenplay also serves as a character study where Martha would say odd things at Lucy and Ted’s home that includes a dinner scene where she defies Ted’s views on the world yet is unable to say what is better.  The film has a very unique structure in how the story is told through this cross-cutting narrative where the film’s third act would reveal the moments that would make Martha leave the cult as well as unraveling of her behavior that would force Lucy to make a big decision.

Durkin’s direction is entrancing in the way he frames his actors and have them match another composition to emphasize Martha’s confusion and what she’s going through.  Even as he shoots the film in remote locations in the Catskill Mountains where Martha is part of the cult as it involves farm life and activities that is reminiscent to hippie communes.  In the lake house in Connecticut, Durkin creates a world where it almost feels a bit claustrophobic from Martha’s view though the framing is far more open in its presentation.  Durkin always creates interesting shots to present Martha in her surroundings from the close-ups at Ted and Lucy’s home to more wandering medium, wide shots in the Catskill Mountains.  Even in scenes such as Martha feeling paranoid where she acts out her anger at a bartender during a party held by Ted and Lucy where the camera is shot from feet away from the action yet is aware of what is happening. 

It is to establish that the film becomes darker as Durkin slowly reveals what drove Martha to flee the cult while reminding the audience that leaving the cult isn’t as easy as it seems.  Durkin’s camera work in the third act gets more unsettling as it progresses where it leads to an ending that has an air of ambiguity.  Particularly as it plays to Martha’s state of mind as she starts to unravel as it leads to confrontation where Durkin plays out the emotional intensity that is happening.  Overall, Durkin creates a very intriguing yet mesmerizing film about a young woman lost in the world.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes does brilliant work with the film‘s photography to capture the natural beauty of the locations as the camera also has a graininess to capture these locations while utilizing more stylish lights for some of the film‘s nighttime interior settings.  Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier does fantastic work with the editing to create matching transitions to move the story back and forth as well as some methodical cuts to play out the tension that is building between Marcy, Lucy, and Ted.  Production designer Chad Keith and art director Jonathan Guggenheim do excellent work with the set pieces from the decayed farm world that the cult lives in to the more spacious, pristine lake house that Ted and Lucy live in.

Costume designer David Tabbert does nice work with the costumes to establish the differing worlds that Martha and Lucy live in with Martha in more casual clothing with Lucy in more stylish, casual dresses.  Sound mixer Micah Bloomberg does superb work with the sound to capture the atmosphere of the farm as well as the sparse intimacy in the lake house location.  The film’s music by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is amazing for its haunting sound with its mix of folk and low-key string music to play out the drama and suspense that occurs in the film.

The casting by Randi Glass and Susan Shopmaker is terrific for the ensemble that is created as it features some noteworthy small appearances from Louisa Krause, Julia Garner, and Maria Dizza as female members of the cult, Christopher Abbott as another cult member, and Brady Corbet as the cult member Watts who is friends with Martha as he would later try to convince to return to the cult.  Hugh Dancy is very good as Ted who tries to get to know Martha and befriend only to become frustrated by her behavior.  Sarah Paulson is wonderful as Martha’s older sister Lucy who tries to figure what happened to Martha while feeling frustrated over her behavior.  John Hawkes is incredible as the cult leader Patrick who has this very dark presence about him as he does thing to Martha that would question herself as he would also guide her into places that she knows is wrong.

Finally, there’s Elizabeth Olsen in a phenomenal performance as Martha.  Olsen displays a great sense of restraint as a woman lost in the world as she tries to deal with her new surroundings.  There is also a sense of darkness in the way Olsen makes Martha a bit confrontational as well as a naivete to the way she perceives about the way the world works.  Olsen is a real discovery as she really creates a performance that is captivating to watch from start to finish.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is an outstanding film from Sean Durkin that features a remarkable performance from Elizabeth Olsen.  Along with noteworthy supporting work from John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, and Hugh Dancy.  It is a film that is truly compelling to see a woman lost in the world as she has no idea how to get herself back.  It’s also a film that revels in the world of cults and how they can disengage themselves from reality.  In the end, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a brilliant film from Sean Durkin.

© thevoid99 2012


Diana said...

I saw this movie at the London Film Festival last year and it was definitely one of my highlights- I loved the script, but most especially the direction! Sean Durkin is the one to watch! Not to mention great performances by Elizabeth and Sarah, I loved them both in this film!

Anonymous said...

This film didn't do as much as it did for everybody else, but I still thought there was a great deal of tension and mystery to be had here that added more to the final-product as a whole. Also, it made me realize that an Olsen kid really could act. Good review Steve.

thevoid99 said...

@Diana-Sean Durkin definitely has me interested in what he would do next. I really was amazed by the film.

@Dan-It's not a conventional film but one that works in terms of its suspense and character study as I think Elizabeth Olsen was overlooked in the awards season.