Martha Marcy May Marlene photo. (SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
As far as is-it-real-or-is-it-in-his-or-her-imagination movies go, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (when you talk about it, and I suspect you will, maybe try M TO THE FOURTH POWER or just go ahead and lisp it. That is, once you’ve memorized the title), in my opinion, is squarely in the “real” camp. Martha has fled an abusive place and is safe and recovering now, but is haunted by nightmares. We, the audience, are treated to flashbacks, and they are as compelling as the scenes set in the current day.
That first paragraph was written to entice you. I haven’t seen any advertising for the film on TV. As a matter of fact, the only trailer I’d seen of it was at the movies, and I was entranced. If you want to stray off the beaten path of moviegoing, take a hike to River East 21 in Streeterville or wherever this film is playing.
The movies begins in silence, as we witness a near-wordless sequence of shots in which some submissive, malnourished teenagers are doing chores around some kind of compound. One of the most striking shots in this series is the one of all the members of the cult (we’re guessing) eat dinner in an imposed, oppressive silence. We wonder what kind of low-protein food has been given them to keep them weak- at one point a character says that it is only necessary to eat one meal a day. We see a man named Patrick (John Hawke) who is as quiet and aloof as the others, but we can sense right away that he is the leader.
One of the cult members, Martha, but renamed Marcy May by Patrick, surreptitiously walks off the compound, goes to a nearby town and relieves her hunger in a restaurant there, and is nearly intercepted by a male cult member (Bradey Corbet), but she eludes him. She gets to a pay phone and calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Martha is in a state of confusion, but evidently Lucy can get enough information from her, and the next scene we see has the two sisters united at Lucy’s Connecticut home, which is on a lake.
Beginning at this point, the film engages in a beautifully executed series of scenes and transitions, detailing what happened at the compound in one thread, and the painful re-acquaintance Martha starts with her sister, who is married to an architect, Ted (Hugh Dancy). One thing that is particularly enjoyable about this juxtaposition of scenes is that the first scenes we see from both threads deal with her being absorbed into a society; one familiar (if a bit high-end) the other also welcoming, but becoming distasteful and dangerous as the layers peel away.
The movie goes from one timeline to another in a seamless fashion, using some object or action in one scene to link to the next. I was very impressed with this because it was very subtle, quite different from helicopter blades fading into ceiling fans, to cite an example (from a very good movie) from Francis Ford Coppola. As the film progresses, we see how, under the autonomy of Patrick, Marcy May is inducted into the group by having (very painful) sex with the much older man, participating in robberies to sustain the group, and flirting with death. The scenes in Connecticut show her efforts to fit in with a “new” family, but having trouble adjusting with everyday etiquette and increasingly powerful nightmares.
MMMM is pretty straightforward in its story telling, but near the end the ambiguity sets in. I love a good ambiguous movie (it took me a while to get to that place) but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of storytelling. I was a little confused (OK, a lot) about Martha’s “Marlene” identity. And then there’s that ending…
Much has been said about this being Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout performance, and I certainly hope it is, though I would like to see her continue spending time in independent film. Hey, sometimes the jump for a new star from “small” movies to big Hollywood movies works (as I’m hoping will happen with Gabourey Sidibe’s jump from PRECIOUS to TOWER HEIST), sometimes it’s a bit odd (Jennifer Lawrence from WINTER’S BONE to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) and sometimes it doesn’t work (Jaye Davidson from THE CRYING GAME to STARGATE- remember? Olsen seems ripe for success as a movie star (and/or respected actress), as opposed to her old sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate, whose adult movie career has been spotty. I think the twins are attractive, but Elizabeth has their familial good looks without constantly looking wan and morose. The beautiful Elizabeth also seems quite comfortable with her body, as evidenced by some brave scenes she does here.
Olsen creates a great deal of empathy, and a lot of it has to do with that face. In the beginning of the movie we see her falling in line with the same gloomy resignation as her compound-mates, but her face hides a feverish will to escape which explodes once she does. In the scenes with her sister and her husband, she runs the gamut from reserved gratitude to fearsome outbursts that reveal the influence the cult still has on her. She commands the central focus of this movie. And speaking of that face, there is one shot of it, during the flashbacks, where Patrick is singing a song he wrote about her (or rather, about Marcy May) and her face is seen in half-light, and the feeling of acceptance just beams from it. Sure, it’s posed and lit for maximum impact, but I was transfixed.
Some of the best scenes in the movie feature Martha and her sister Lucy. Lucy willingly drives three hours to rescue her sister and bring her to her home, and once Martha restores herself with food and is sitting peacefully with her sister by the lake, Lucy’s character arc begins, starting with from patience and a reserved acceptance that slowly deteriorates. Olsen and Paulson are in the same high class with their performances, and we believe that here we have two people torn apart by Martha’s two-year absence. Lucy offers questions that dip the toe in a very murky lake, and Martha shudders and tries unsuccessfully to close her sister off. Martha displays inappropriate behavior, and even though her sister may start with a shocked outburst, she apologizes and then tries to bring logic to the situation, much to the growing chagrin of her husband. The scenes between the two women are gems.
Hugh Dancy has the closest to what might be classified a “standard” role: the sympathetic spouse who begins to lose his patience, but Dancy keeps it real. The anger that Ted feels is pretty close to the surface, however, and we immediately see the contrast in emotional strength between the man and his wife. (Ted is an architect, which brings up my previous objection, expressed in this column, to the high number of architects that are married to people or that are featured in movies. I love architects, but to me it seems to be a cliché I can’t relate to.)
The ultimate male power in this movie, though, belongs to the character of Patrick, the cult leader. This movie, invariably, I think, is going to be compared to last year’s Best Picture nominee WINTER’S BONE, where John Hawkes played another dark, though somewhat less malevolent character. He is riveting in these types of danger-laden, disconcerting, forest- or marsh- dwelling roles. Whether it’s raping a young woman as an act of initiation (be warned: it’s not an easy scene to sit through), reasoning in his own twisted logic with the kids trying to sustain a farm, or commanding a character to shoot various living creatures, he’s chilling. His cold rationality also makes him entirely credible.
Some folks might hear that this movie is dark, and translate that as depressing. Not really, I would respond. It is a tension-filled, absorbing mystery and character study, with a bright actress bringing empathy to the part of a deeply troubled girl not totally sure that she wants to fit in. It’s worth the trip.
As I was writing it, I think I figured out the Marlene part. The ability to infer is not my great strength.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.