Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Keeping it in the family: Martha Marcy May Marlene Review

  The spirit of the 70s New Hollywood still looms large over contemporary American cinema. Indeed, it’s a sign of how far things have fallen since the heyday of Scorsese, Coppola et al that fledging talents today should continuously hearken back to the ethos and the aesthetic of those filmmaking monuments. Martha Marcy May Marlene, the scarily accomplished feature-length debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, is no exception, alluding in its design and execution to such classics as The Conversation. Like that masterclass in understated paranoia, Marlene uses the template of a psychological thriller in order to pose provocative questions, rather than deliver prepackaged entertainment in the mould favoured by the Shyamalan-inflected mainstream.
  With its detached perspective, critique of the middle-classes, moments of sudden brutal violence and uncompromising ambiguity it’s also deeply indebted to Austrian auteur Michel Haneke. Whilst not as bracingly austere and disturbing as Haneke’s best work, however, Durkin’s suspense-laden script and avoidance of the didacticism that can creep into his European counterpart potentially make it a more palatable experience for regular cinemagoers.

  At the opening of the story, we witness the Martha of the title (played by the ethereal and faintly androgynous-looking Elizabeth Olsen) escape from what at first glance appears to be a remote farming community, only one where a sinister hierarchy exists between the two genders. As we learn later, the self-appointed patriarch of this homestead, Patrick (John Hawkes), has brainwashed his surrogate family of strays and drop-outs – with Martha amongst their number – filling their heads with pseudo-spiritual bullshit in order to convince the vulnerable young women that his criminal activities and abusive sexual treatment of them is actually a form of refined love.  
 Having moved in with her older sister Lucy and her British husband Ted, Martha’s repressed memories of her time in the demented commune begin to surface, muddying her ability to distinguish between past and present and causing her to suspect that she is being stalked by the leaders of the cult from which she has fled.

  Durkin should be applauded for the great subtlety with which he tackles the narrative. Clearly, the manner in which Martha’s self-satisfied relatives Lucy and Ted attempt to make their unwanted patient conform to the standards of bourgeois life, prettifying her with make-up and dosing her with pharmaceuticals, is meant to be paralleled with the more extreme rituals of the commune. Admirably, Durkin never labours the point, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how far he or she wants to equate the oppression of one less orthodox social circle with that of the other.
  He is given enormous help in this regard by the finesse of editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, who uses disguised cuts and overlapping sound design to segue almost imperceptibly from Martha’s present at her sister’s lakeside property to involuntary recollections of her previous ordeal and back again. It’s an inspired structural decision, working brilliantly to evoke Martha’s unmooring from reality without ever becoming needlessly confusing for the audience. By forcing us to share the subjectivity of Martha, it is also responsible for the film’s disquieting effect. There is one particular moment towards the end where the ambiguous weaving of dream and waking reality intimate ever so insidiously that one character might not be as clean-cut as we’ve imagined…

  Elizabeth Olsen has won the lion’s share of critical plaudits on the acting front, and with good reason: Martha is no straightforward victim, but a far more complex combination of youthful arrogance, misguided idealism and psychological damage. By refusing to soften the character’s enigmatic exterior, Olsen creates a protagonist occasionally hard to sympathise with, but far more engaging and believably imperfect than any dewy-eyed innocent. John Hawkes is also deserving of acclaim: considering his wiry and none-too-imposing physique, he invests the psychopathic Patrick with a remarkable degree of predatory menace.

  Stories this unnerving and anti-escapist may not be what everyone’s looking for at the bleak beginning of a new year (although let’s face it, when are they ever?), but for those who brave its chilling depths it’s certain to leave a lasting impression.