Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Where are we? When are we? As Martha Marcy May Marlene opens we see men and women working in fields and a farmhouse, chopping wood, harvesting, laundering, cooking. At the end of the day, the men eat slowly, quietly, huddled around a dark table in a dark kitchen. They slowly file out and the women take their place, finally their turn to eat the meal. The sun sets. Members of this group go to sleep on mattresses packed on the floor of unfurnished rooms.

In the haze of daybreak, one of the young women (Elizabeth Olsen) slips away from the farmhouse, across the fields and comes upon a thick slice of asphalt breaking up the natural world and helping to narrow down the period of time in which she lives. She crosses the road and disappears into the forest beyond. We follow her as she seems to escape, eventually ending up in a modern small town where she uses the pay phone outside of the diner to call her sister. “Martha?” her sister says. “Where are you?”

We learn that Martha’s family hasn’t heard from her in two years, knowing only vaguely that she was “upstate” with a “boyfriend.” Her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), pick her up and drive her back to their vacation house. They quickly decide to take her in, to help he get on her feet. They seem remarkably uncurious as to where Martha has been or what happened to her. Something is so very wrong here that, though this couple’s attempts at kindness is sympathetic, their situational blind spots contribute to the film’s dread. How can they so easily ignore the warning signs that this young woman is so troubled?

After all, what could explain her behavior? She seems, in subtle ways, unaccustomed to what we would call a relatively normal life. The house in which she now lives is an expansive wood-and-glass lakeside domicile surrounded by woods. It’s modern yet secluded, different from where she was, but with resonances of reminders. She will cast her gaze nervously about her surroundings, as if anticipating sudden danger, or else remembering the possibility. The married couple can’t quite see how disturbed Martha is. There are unspoken histories between these characters, familial tensions that are teased out with some subtlety by the capable cast.

The full extent of Martha’s previous two years is slowly parceled out by the film, which slips between the two time periods with chilling silkiness in the editing. We continually return to that farmhouse with the eerie timeless quality of the dress and codes of conduct. We come to learn that the group of people living there are all enthralled by a cult leader (John Hawkes, seemingly effortlessly disquieting) who slowly draws his victims in with his soft-spoken philosophizing and simply plucked guitar compositions, creating a sense of community. Then, we come to understand how he uses psychological domination and torture as well as ritualized patterns of behavior, a strict work ethic, an unflinching schedule, and punishing initiations including shocking violence and rape, to control and retain his followers. As what we know more about Martha’s time amongst these people, the darker and more disturbing the implications grow.

As the trauma of her time in the cult regularly intrudes upon the film’s present tense, the collision draws the atmosphere into the same haze of paranoia and aftershocks of anxiety that Martha is feeling. This is remarkably assured debut work for the writer-director Sean Durkin who keeps the focus on fuzzy compositions and ominously open spaces in the blocking and backgrounds of shots. (In some ways it reminded me a bit of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, but that’s a fairly obscure connection for the benefit of what is likely to be only a small portion of those reading this). The visual style of the picture matches Martha’s fuzzy mental state, clear and warm at times, but all-too-soon giving way to confusion and cold, unflinching traumatic memories. It’s a slow mystery – what is the full extent of the awfulness of what happened to her, and will she get the help she needs? – that is in some ways a slow-motion horror movie. One sequence late in the film is a like a quieter, simpler, though no less startling, version of something right out of a slasher flick.

The film tells the story of Martha’s steps towards a new, better life, tying it relentlessly to the slow and steady reveal of what she must overcome. It took great courage for her to escape her situation, but is it possible for Martha to outrun her past? We are given reason for hope, but as the end credits crash in, it’s still very much a tense, pressing, frustratingly unanswerable open question. In that moment, the film reveals itself to be a bit too teasing in its restraint to be fully believed (I’m tempted to call it Haneke lite). But it’s overall an undeniably effective piece of filmmaking and a strong debut.

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