Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Man on Film: Martha Marcy May Marlene

In spite of the fact that this film possesses the hardest title to correctly recall since Synecdoche New York, Martha Marcy May Marlene is hard to forget. Given the fact that it features a storyline not especially concerned with packing in tons of action, this speaks volumes to the effectiveness of evocation that first-time feature-length director Sean Durkin displays. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, he has crafted a thriller concerned with mood first and foremost. 
As Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaks away from the compound at the break of dawn, the audience is immediately beset with the question of what happened to her. From its onset, the film alternates between the present--where Martha is fully damaged--and the past--where the damaging takes place over time. Durkin doles out her past bit by bit, showing how she falls under Patrick's (John Hawkes) control. As she becomes more personally invested in the cult, more harm befalls her. As the traumas mount in the flashbacks, the tension mounts in the present.

It is really quite shocking to see a first-time director so deftly pull the strings in a low-key thriller like Martha Marcy May Marlene. Durkin is certainly helped by the two Oscar-caliber performances from Olsen and Hawkes.

There is considerable buzz surrounding Elizabeth Olsen's turn; a buzz of which either of her sisters must be envious. This attention is absolutely warranted. Given the complete lack of interesting roles for actresses in today's Hollywood, Olsen is nearly a lock for a Best Actress nomination, and she is likely the front-runner early on. She is called upon to run the full spectrum from strong individual to broken down cult follower to completely unhinged escapee trying to hold her tattered life together.

As the cult leader, Patrick, Hawkes elicits a superficial calm with an underlying violence of spirit that is unsettling to say the least. It isn't hard to see how the followers could be drawn to him. He embodies the qualities we assume all cult leaders to possess. He is charismatic, manipulative, and dangerous, and Hawkes encompasses all of these things seamlessly.

Perhaps it is these two turns that make the film, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is enthralling and ultimately unsettling despite the fact that very little happens in the present.

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