Martha Marcy May Marlene–Sundance Fest Highlight

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Fest 2011 (Dramatic Competition)–In “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a woman’s physical and emotional recovery following her flight from a terrifying cult. The film marks a formally audacious and visually sophisticated debut from the gifted young filmmaker Sean Durkin.

Produced by Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, the collaborators of Campos’s superb 2009 debut “Afterschool,” Durkin won the Jury directing prize for his devastatingly assured and commanding work. Fox Searchlight acquired the film for distribution.

For his feature, Durkin expanded his short “Mary Last Seen,” into a disquieting and frightening portrait of surrender and coercion. The intricate and involving two-part structure unfolds largely through flashbacks.  Eschewing background and circumstance, it depicts the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in a truly stunning performance), a directionless and susceptible young woman recruited by a handsome stranger named Watts (Brady Corbet) into a collective hiding out in a large farmhouse in the Catskills.

From the eerie opening, Durkin creates insinuating and creepy texture of disassociation and entrapment. Martha is introduced with a group of women, all identically dressed, awaiting their turn while the men finish their evening meal. Moments later, Martha is seen lighting out through the woods, the camera trailing her, as she uses the cover of darkness to aid her escape. Watts confronts her at a local diner, though surprisingly he grants her freedom.

She makes contact with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her only surviving relative, who discloses that Martha has been absent two years. Lucy lives with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), a New York developer. Lucy and her husband provide Martha with the necessary sanctuary in Connecticut three hours from where Lucy had made contact with her wayward sister.

Durkin and his brilliant cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (who also shot “Afterschool”) fracture time and space, fluidly shifting between the past and present as the torment and sexual subjugation Martha experiences at the farmhouse is contrasted against her overwhelming task of reclaiming her humanity and emotional bearings.

The filmmakers are especially adept at the startling use of water imagery. Normally a symbol of cleansing and re-birth, in Martha’s distracted and angry condition, it marks a particularly grungy form of violation. The sense of plunge and downward movement carries a raw and visceral poetic force.

If Watts is Martha’s conduit into the cult, the leader is the suave and chillingly exact Patrick (John Hawkes). He carries a magnetic hold, personally and sexually, over many of the women. The wiry Hawkes (Oscar-nominated for the indie, “Winter’s Bone”) assigns Martha her new identity, “Marcy May,” and presents a moment that’s both enthralling and unsettling, serenading her with a number, “Marcy’s Song,” that underlines his charisma and magnetism.

The flashbacks also reveal Patrick’s darker and more vengeful side, especially a moment involving shooting firearms and a violent home invasion that affirms his pathological skills at convincing his followers to commit the most egregious of crimes. If the water imagery forms one visual pattern, the split level architecture of Lucy’s summer home invites a wholly different recovered memory.

Water also marks Martha’s acute reminder of distress and dislocation and indicates her own moral imbalance, like the time Martha she suddenly disrobes and dives into the water near her sister’s vacation home naked. Her own rebirth is met with increasingly disturbing signs of breakdown and perhaps encroaching madness, demonstrated by anxiousness, violent mood swings and aberrant behavior, like the night she coiled up to Lucy in her bed during sex with Ted.

Like Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter,” the movie moves, uneasily, between the imagination unbound and the nightmarish implications. “Do you ever get that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or something you dreamed,” Martha inquires of her sister.

In her first significant part, Olsen imbues the work a jolting ferocity and damning insecurity, her body aquiver and arms twisted and bent. The mask of pain and discomfort during Patrick’s forced sexual actions against her leaves you shaken and wiped out.

Durkin’s spare script offers some information but never overburdens Martha, Lucy or the other primary characters. The strategy is sometimes frustrating but it coolly draws you in. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a mood piece but also a throwback. Durkin and Lipes eliminate primary colors, working almost exclusively in muted colors that sustain the pervasively menacing tones and uncomfortable rhythms.

In the most radical notion, the filmmakers and Olsen’s performance suggest that, no matter the scenario, the cult or her sister’s hideaway, Martha is a prisoner of her own consciousness. The movie has a knock-out closure, the reappearance of one kind of monster, again linked to water, echoing against an ambiguously uncomfortable and frightening harbinger of unease and collapse.