Wednesday, October 19, 2011
NYFF Review #4: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
The writer/director of my favorite movie title of 2011, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, is named Sean Durkin, and he's a newfound wunderkind of disorientation. In his debut feature, he puts us right in the dizzied headspace of his film's title character, played with giggly, goggled, shell-shocked charisma by Elizabeth Olsen. From scene to scene, he makes it difficult to determine where we are in the story, and it's a dazzling effect. We may be with Martha as she seeks solace at her mildly rich sister's lakehouse, which she shares with her architect husband (this happiness-seeking couple are compassionately played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). But, then, upon another cut, as we plunge into the lake with Martha, we may be seeing her as Marcy May or Marlene, frolicking in a bizarre green liquid with other searching souls.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE strikes us as a sideways take on a horror story. It's about a girl who has her nowhere ambition taken by an upstate New York cult which demands that she pledge sexual and domestic allegiance to a steadfast, folk-singing leader, assayed with sinewy, slight menace by John Hawkes (who, in a memorable scene, delivers what may turn out to be the creepiest Best Song nominee in all of Oscar history). For me, the cult aspect of Durkin's movie falls short of letting me know anything about the inner-workings of such a spirit; once Hawke's character starts talking about death being a doorway into life (which comes later in the film), I felt I was in the well-traveled territory of Charles Manson and Jim Jones, and I fell out of the movie. But I had to remember that it's been a good two decades since movies have been made about such subjects, and so I felt I had to cleanse myself of this divisiveness. Still, the memories made my opinions about the movie veer towards seeing it as cliche (there's one moment of violence in it that's just too much).
The movie is photographed in a distinctively murky widescreen by Jody Lee Lipes, and it's this shadowy, still feature that most definitely helps propel this off-axis character study into bonafide horror movie territory (after the NYFF screening, I approached Durkin about my suspicions, and he confirmed to me that his two favorite movies were ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE SHINING). Olsen's well-studied Martha is truly haunted by her past. She can't even eat properly without being told it's okay to do so. She jumps and literally pees her pants at every errant sound. She can't suppress laughter at the normal things she now finds to be abnormal. She joins her sister as she's having sex with her husband. Sleep for her is impossible. And dealing with her reappearance strains her sister's marriage to the breaking point. Up until the very end, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a scary movie.
Olsen's performance is nothing short of superb. She's the breakthrough actress of the year. Every tiny movement she makes is perfection. I wish that I had never read HELTER SKELTER or seen the jittery 1981 Canadian movie TICKET TO HEAVEN or lived through 1979's Jonestown massacre, because I'd then be able to more fairly assess MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE for what it might be to most viewers. As it is, I see the film working strongly as a delivery device for Durkin's steady directorial hand and, most primarily, as a vehicle for a handful of searing performances, spearheaded by its welcome lead actress. You'll know what I mean when you hear Elizabeth Olsen's voice transform into a hardened devil's as she lays into her sister with a remark that's nearly unforgivable.