The toast of last year's Sundance surely had to be Sean Durkin's slow-burn drama about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, who deservedly broke out as an indie darling) taking refuge from an upstate-New York cult at her sister Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) manor-esque home. Does Martha Marcy May Marlene manage to live up to the hype generated by an overblown festival reception and the warm critical acceptance that followed? Yes and no - Olsen doesn't disappoint, but the film as a whole wrestles with a grating pace that sees the audience consistently well ahead of the meager plot.
It's reasonable to refer to the film as more of a character study than a traditional narrative, but even so, illuminating the personality quirks of a cult defector surely can be done in tune with an engaging and dramatically potent plot. Instead, Olsen's Martha (the title's many names are poignant but not worth spoiling here) tries to find a corner to herself in Lucy's home, but fails considerably, wrestling with the cult ideology that's been imprinted, often forcefully. The editing, by Zachary Stuart-Pontier, skillfully links Martha's most base actions to key ceremonies during her time with the cult. Here the slow pacing works terrifically, as Martha social norms slink up and then clash violently with the "new" world around her. It is also where Durkin's script finds a strong anchor, asking poignantly whether the rituals of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are as foreign to us as they are to Martha, looking in from the outside as we do.
A man named Patrick, who is played by John Hawkes, an actor who will see his second Oscar nomination for the film "The Surrogate," which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, leads the cult. Hawkes is disturbing because he is an enormously gifted actor whose long-time work as supporting characters has allowed the man to embody an ideal, making his short time on screen not only vital to the plot but the key to Olsen's latter-day suffering. Patrick is a man of choice words, who bolsters Olsen as "a teacher and a leader" before summoning her to shoot an animal to death. We may shake our heads and think of his carefully worded explanations as nonsense, but imagine for a second this man gripping your hand, or putting his hands on your shoulders, never invading your private space but fully inhabiting your mental space.
As a Bergman-esque house drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene explores not only the lasting effects of indoctrination but whether this is something it is possible to recover from. Lucy and Ted know nothing of Martha's true past, and her behavior is bizarre and growing more and more dangerous. We have a window into her mind and as the links grow more worrisome and the plot finally draws to a defining and tragic event, a sudden and surprisingly emotionally gripping ending stops the film and forces us to think hard about what we've seen. Trapped within an endless cycle of looking over her shoulder, Martha reminds this writer of Ryan Gosling's Driver, a man who goes to war but can never be sure that it will ever end. The nightmare, for Olsen's cult child, has no finish line, only ebbs and flows as she traverses a sea of madness.
Video and Sound:
Having received a pre-release screener disk of Martha Marcy May Marlene, we cannot currently comment on the video/audio. This review will be updated should a release copy be made available to us.
Assuming the lone extra is ported over to the final product, we are rewarded with Mary Last Seen, a short film by director Sean Durkin that explores similar subject matter. It's worth a viewing, even as a curio, since it showcases the development of a personal style that would follow Durkin as he broke through with Martha.
With flawed pacing but a massively successful lead performance, Martha Marcy May Marlene may not be completely deserving of the wild praise that first surrounded it, but it is a capable first film, the work of a skilled helmer and a innately talented lead actress.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...