Monday, October 24, 2011



- Why do we do the things we do? I mean, why do we let our lives play out in the ways that they do? Once we are adults, we - most of us - follow the usual patterns. Go to school, get a job, join the rat race. But who's to say that that is the "right" way to live? It may sound like a silly question, but it's a viable one. There's a certain sameness to the way we all go about our lives that can make anyone begin to wonder what else is out there. But those questions can lead to some pretty dark places, and there are those who would pray on the disaffected, the dienfranchised, the lost souls - and turn their doubt and sense of loneliness into something else that suits their own agenda, their own needs. This, of course, is how cults are formed. And a cult - one that is strange and manipulative and twisted - but one that's also eerily plausible in the way in which it lures in its members and brainwashes them into subservience - is the subject of the haunting psychological thriller MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.

The film is, on the whole, pretty astounding - one of the most tense, nail-biting dramas I've seen in a long time. An atmosphere of sheer danger and paranoia envelops the movie, and it makes for a film that's absolutely creepy, disturbing, and thought-provoking. The film also features some outstanding performances, including a breakout role from star Elizabeth Olsen. Yes, she's the sister of the Olsen twins Mary Kate and Ashley. But the level of acting on display here is a world away from most of what we've seen from Elizabeth's older siblings. This is one of those cage-rattling, memorable performances where a star is very quickly born - similar in many ways to last year's turn from Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. And I think Olsen will get a similar level of awards buzz and attention.

We first meet Olsen's character - real name Martha - as she is about to make one of the biggest and scariest decisions of her life. We don't yet know the details, but we know that she's been trapped in a backwoods cult for some time. And now, she's finally mustered up the will and the courage to make an attempt at escape. She casually walks outside of the group's ramshackle Catskills farmhouse, walks, walks, and then runs for the woods. Group members give chase, but Martha hides, eludes them, and then keeps running until she makes it into town. Eventually, shaking and traumatized, freed from her tether for the first time in years, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a payphone. The two haven't spoken in years, but Lucy detects the fear and desperation in her younger sister's quivering voice. Vacationing in Connecticut with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Lucy is only a few hours drive from her sister. She picks her up, and brings the shaken, traumatized, and still semi-brainwashed Martha back to her lakeside vacation home.

From here on in, the film employs a Lost-style series of flashbacks, with things, people, events in the lakehouse triggering memories of her time in the cult. The flashbacks offer harrowing glimpses at what life was like in that remote Catskills farmhouse. We see how, two years prior, Martha came to meet the group's leader, Patrick (the great John Hawkes). Slowly, reluctantly, she becomes indoctrinated into the group, gradually accepting their odd rules and regulations and way of life. Martha - dubbed Marcy May by Patrick (Marlene is the stock name cult members use to answer the phone at the farmhouse), becomes a favorite of the charismatic but creepy leader, and eventually she herself becomes the one doing the indoctrination to new recruits. It's an incredibly eerie transformation - seeing the once-skeptical Martha fall increasingly deeper into the abyss, losing her sense of free will, of free thought along the way. Martha - already semi-broken by the early loss of her parents - becomes almost completely broken by the cult. A particularly traumatic event is eventually revealed to have been her breaking point - the trigger that snapped part of her back to reality, that caused her to feel the need to, finally, escape. But by the time Martha is back with Lucy in Connecticut, she's lost all sense of how to fit in, of how to socialize, of how to be a part of society and of a normal family.

That is perhaps the scariest part of this film ... part of the movie's tension comes from the everpresent fear that members of the cult are coming to take Martha back, or worse. But part of the tension comes from the fact that Martha herself feels a pull, almost a compulsion, to go back of her own accord. As soon as she detects hostility from her sister and her sister's husband, as soon as she begins to realize how little she fits in with ordinary people anymore, there is that question in her mind - was she better off with Patrick at the farmhouse? The fact that Martha has been brainwashed to that extent, that she'd go back even after we see what kinds of awful things go on there - well, it's disturbing.

But the movie also doesn't shy away from painting things in shades of gray. It would have been easy to make Lucy and Ted loving, caring family members who do their best to help Martha and figure out what's been going on with her. Initially, Paulson's Lucy seems concerned, protective, eager to make up for lost time with her estranged sister, whom she hasn't talked to in two years. But slowly, we see that Lucy, well, she has her own issues. She's distant, self-absorbed, and unable to truly connect with her sister. And Ted is, in many ways, exactly the kind of person that might cause someone to join a cult. He's career-obssessed, sort of cold ... he's more concerned about Martha finding a job and getting out of the house than he is with getting her help. Perhaps the most infuriating part of the whole film is how long it takes Lucy and Ted to wake up and realize that Martha - even though she just told them that she's been living with a boyfriend and that they had a bad breakup - has just been through a *major* trauma. At first I wondered if it was just illogical writing in the script, but then I realized that Lucy and Ted were set up as being likable, but that that was merely a facade. In reality, they are kind of douchey, and the fact that they almost drive a still-fragile and unstable Martha *back* to the cult is maddening, but again, makes this a much more complex movie than it might have been otherwise.

The flashback scenes to the Catskills though, like I said, are just creepy as hell. John Hawkes does a phenomenal job as Patrick - mixing the easygoing likability he displayed in Deadwood with the scary, sinewy intensity he had in Winter's Bone. And again, the whole plausibility of the thing is what makes it so disturbing. The way in which Patrick runs his group makes perfect sense in a twisted sort of way, and it's easy to see how he successfully attracts wayward souls to his flock and then keeps his members in line.

The way the movie is shot only adds to its creepiness factor. Director Sean Durkin gives the entire film a voyeuristic look that makes it feel like we, the viewers, are in constant danger of being found out by the characters in the film. There's a big emphasis on Olsen's sexuality as well, but it's emphasized in a way that is again, a tad unsettling - like she's become oblivious to her own sexuality, and how her openness and frankness will be perceived by others. It all adds up to a film that makes you squirm a little bit, but that is also utterly gripping. As mentioned, the overall sense of tension and creeping dread is off the charts. During one pivotal scene, the audience I saw the film with was captivated, holding their breath ... and when the big "holy $%#$!" moment came, there was a collective gasp. It takes a great storyteller to elicit that kind of tension and reaction from an audience, and in that regard, writer/director Durkin makes a huge impression.

What keeps the movie from achieving perfection though are the aforementioned scenes with Lucy and Ted. Again, I get what Durkin was going for, but in these sections I think the movie - so eerily plausible in the flashbacks, becomes slightly absurdist as we wait and wait for the married couple to acknowledge just how far gone Martha clearly is. They drink wine, go swimming and go about their vacation-induced idleness, but their under-reaction to Martha -their half-hearted concern and only mild, slightly-annoyed curiosity, is just too hard to swallow during certain sections of the film.

Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fascinating, nail-biting look at the prisons that all of us place ourselves in, and a statement on the sheer willpower and determination it can take to free ourselves. It shows us how individuals can prey on the weak and dispossessed with the promise of purpose and belonging. It shows how identity and sense of self can be warped by society and by others. And with the film's final, eerie scene, it shows us that sometimes, even when we try to be free, to escape - we can't. We're trapped, and it's too late, and there's no getting out. It's haunting, memorable ... and it adds up to one of the year's best films so far.

My Grade: A-

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