DIR/WRI: Sean Durkin • PRO: Antonio Campos, Patrick Cunningham, Chris Maybach, Josh Mond • DOP: Jody Lee Lipes • ED: Zachary Stuart-Pontier • DES: Chad Keith • Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene won him an award for direction at the Sundance Film Festival last year and since then the film has accumulated shelf-loads of trophies from festivals and critics’ circles all across America. Now arriving in Europe, its slow, sombre tone and pitch-perfect acting are likely to win it similar praise around the world.
The film opens on a farming commune in northern New York State; a sort of idyllic escape for young school drop-outs who don’t feel the world “gets” them. One morning, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) rises from her bed and runs away. Reuniting with her well-to-do older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she has not spoken to in over two years, and Lucy’s yuppie husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha struggles to adapt to life with regular people. Delaying a return to society as a whole by waiting out the weeks at her sister’s holiday home, Martha reflects on her life at the commune.
Through a series of well-connected flashbacks we quickly come to realise the commune was a highly seductive though seemingly unambitious cult, led by a charismatic snake-charmer of a man named Patrick (John Hawkes). We see how Martha, known to the cult as Marcy May, came to be indoctrinated and how the unapparent danger of the cult began to escalate.
The crowded farmhouse, home to more than a dozen cult members, contrasts brilliantly with Lucy and Ted’s vast, near-empty country home. The film uses its flashbacks to compare the soullessness of modernity to the communal bliss that seems to be at the core of Patrick’s cult. As Martha clashes with her sister and her husband over the morality of the real world, she is left wondering if she was perhaps better off remaining with her fellow outcasts.
Shot with ponderous long-takes and minimal camera movements, Durkin’s film has an airy quality that works well with the uncertainty of its central character. Young Elizabeth Olsen, in her debut performance, is simply outstanding; equal parts strong and determined, and weak, lost and petrified. Former Winter’s Bone Oscar nominee Hawkes also stands out, giving a chilling performance as a crooked man with more power than he ought to have.
While its ending will undoubtedly divide audiences, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an interesting study of an unlikely form of post-traumatic stress disorder, held together by one superb performance. Its slow pace will not keep the attention of all viewers, but it is a welcome start for a director and actress who will likely bring some more great films in the near future.
Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Martha Marcy May Marlene is released on 3rd February 2012