Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tattered souls -- 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

To begin any kind of discussion of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," one has to start at the end. Don't worry, there are no spoilers here. I only mean to suggest that the full force of the film, its true meaning, and its darkest implications, are only visible in its final cut to black. That alone is rare for a film, and in "Martha" it is at the least claustrophobic and the most horrific.

No, this is not the twisted psycho-thriller some of the more mainstream critics have claimed it to be. I'd argue its comparisons to Polanski's films (particularly "Repulsion," as I've seen some throw around) are also unwarranted, if only because first time director-writer Sean Durkin cares very little for the gothic expressionism Polanski was so obsessed with in his psychosexual horror films. Rather, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a terribly affecting study of psychological unhinging made with a deft sense of how to use cinema to get inside someone's head. Made with a subtle drive, an undercurrent of paranoia that gradually seeps into its farthest corners, this is both an admirably restrained first-time feature and an utterly astonishing star-making turn for Elizabeth Olsen.

Martha (Olsen) calls her sister out of the blue to be picked up somewhere in upstate New York. She is visibly emotionally scarred and hauntingly distant, and as she stays with her sister and brother-in-law in their New England lake house for two weeks, they try to reconnect with her as flashbacks gradually reveal the cause of her increasingly paranoid isolation. Martha spent the last two years living in a cult that borderline worshiped patriarchal Patrick (John Hawkes in a role less flashy but no less vicious than his Oscar-nommed turn in "Winter's Bone"), where she fell victim to and witnessed psychological violence, brutal sexuality, and home invasion.

The auspicious title derives from this polar existence -- in the cult, Martha became Marcy May, a name given to her by Patrick (as for Marlene, well, the film gives that one away too, but it's rather buried, so I won't spoil the fun). Told concurrently, the flashbacks intrude seamlessly into Martha's present space. The only way to distinguish how time changes between an edit is sometimes the quality of light, the film stock, or what Martha is wearing, so approximate are the match cuts between time and space.

At first, this is disorienting, but ultimately becomes decipherable and rather clever, largely because of how sparse Durkin chooses to edit the film. Many sequences play out in one long take, often from a stationary camera position. Cinematography Jody Lee Lipses uses very narrow focal planes to show Martha's isolation, or deep space to convey how out of touch she is with the house around her. Every time an edit happens, it begs instant analysis on our part to figure out what's changed, if anything.

I don't just say this because I'm a film scholar and I do it anyway: "Martha" is a film that forces you to wake up to the devices of the cinema in order to decipher meaning; only by becoming aware of what the camera, the editing, and the sound track are doing in any given moment are we able to connect with Martha's inner world.

While at first Martha just seems damaged and removed, a shell of a person trying to reconcile her absence from society, the film gradually pushes this closer to a raving paranoia, where she may or may not be hearing sounds, and people may or may not be following her. Again, the concurrent movements through time that gradually show the true nature of the cult help instill this dread in us as it comes out in Martha. The deepest credit must be given to Elizabeth Olsen, who is mute for much of the film and does everything to seem disconnected. Yet it's this disconnectedness that makes her so affecting; a paradox of a most intense nature. She seems so incredibly comfortable with letting the camera study her, with using the space of the frame to maximum effect, trusting Durkin's visual design to gradually reveal her tortured worldview.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a difficult film, make no mistake. It has very rough questions about how to deal with loss, how to construct the self, how women relate to men, how power structures are formed, and how fear manifests itself. Martha's strained relationship with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) reveals a dichotomous worldview between them -- the film very much questions how we choose to live our lives, and what purpose we serve ourselves in choosing those paths. This question is key to the other half of the film as well, as Hawkes's selfish messiah Patrick wants so desperately to be loved he'll bend the will of others to create his own utopia.

For a film so quiet, it's easy to let these very complicated ideas slide to the wayside and become frustrated with the film's very deliberate pace and very closed off space. Admittedly, its conclusion comes with a rather ambiguous jolt. But the more time spent away from it, the more haunting it becomes. Durkin has created an atmosphere so insular, so psychologically damaged, so reflective of his protagonist's scars, that it's hard not to be impressed.

It's hard to place a final judgment on a "Martha," for it so slowly reveals itself and, similarly, slowly implants its effect once the lights come up. Suffice to say it is that rare psychological film less interested in scaring with its paranoia than honestly interrogating the creation of effects of paranoia.

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