***originally written 17 February 2012***
Martha sneaks out of the commune at dawn, crosses the road and heads into the woods. One of the boys follows her, so she hides. He finds her later in the town, sat in a diner and tries to coax her back to the house, but she resists. Reluctantly, she calls her sister Lucy for help. Lucy picks her up and takes her to the lake house.
So begins Sean Durkin’s coolly gripping Martha Marcy May Marlene, a quiet but intense picture of a soul damaged by lies. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) says little about her experiences in the commune, leaving Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) to patiently try to coax her back to normalcy, yet Martha will not only test them, but call their own choices into question.
As much as anything else, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about what cannot be said. Martha is inarticulate about her experiences not because she doesn’t want to talk about them, but because she has no idea how to. How does one convey such deeply rooted trauma? So instead we are drip-fed elements of Martha’s former life in flashbacks triggered by sounds and experiences in the present. We meet commune leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and learn the daily routines. It is only as the film – and Martha’s shell-shocked behaviour – progresses that we start to learn of the commune’s more unsavoury practices.
What Patrick presents as a model of simple living and self-sufficiency crumbles down to reveal a hypocritical and sexually malevolent ethos. Patrick ‘cleanses’ the new girls in spite of their clear reservations, and through his snaking words and excuses, rationalises petty larceny. He also takes power of them by renaming them. Martha becomes Marcy May at his pleasing, whilst another new girl, Sara, immediately becomes Sally. Patrick understands the power of words to persuade, command and take ownership.
Watching Martha fall under Patrick’s spell is one thing, but the film takes a more problematic and disturbing turn when we see Martha indoctrinating others. She becomes complicit in Patrick’s evil. As she shows ‘Sally’ around they encounter another girl holding a baby. When ‘Sally’ asks if the infant is a boy or a girl, Martha merely replies, “Patrick only has boys”. No further references to this are made, but the implications are terrifying.
It is this kind of calculated restraint on Durkin’s part that typifies MMMM, and helps it rises above the usual cliché trappings of the, ahem, ‘cult’ movie. The subject matter is well-worn, and could easily lapse into the crude, yet Durkin skilfully balances the story on a knife-edge. Holding back his punches. Because of this, when violence does punctuate the movie, it is all the more shocking. Even the ending is perfectly pitched, bypassing viewer expectations. This will infuriate some, who’ll complain that MMMM is too ambiguous. This ambiguity however is one of the film’s great strengths.
Then there is Olsen. It’s a career-making role. Utterly believable and eminently watchable. She really doesn’t place a foot wrong., whilst John Hawkes, unsurprisingly, is pitch-perfect as Patrick; skeletal, veiny, manipulative. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Paulson and Dancy provide sturdy support, but this is really Olsen’s movie. She commands every bit of it.
Durkin’s film echoes two other impressive independent films from the past year; Blue Valentine and We Need To Talk About Kevin. Though completely different in theme and content, the three movies share similar connective tissue. All three reveal themselves through flashback, chopping between past and present and holding the viewer responsible for piecing the story together. All three are deftly handled, built out of thoughtfully composed shots, unafraid to let silence tell as many truths as action and dialogue. If this marks a sea change in American independent cinema toward a more contemplative realism, then all the better. And Martha Marcy May Marlene is, for me, the best of the bunch in this new wave of quietly compelling dramas.
Go see it, if you can. It’ll stay with you long after the credits roll.