DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SUNDANCE 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Saturday 22 January 2011

SUNDANCE 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) dir. Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzie, Brady Corbet, John Hawkes


By Alan Bacchus

Admittedly I’m still trying to process this one, but what I am sure of is this slow burning ambient thriller is absolutely chilling to bone. A terrifying experience which gets under your skin, an itch you can’t scratch, or like watching a turtle on it’s back.

Durkin is slow to let us in on what exactly is happening. A non-descript farm, a house full of young women dressed in white, huddled together like in a harem. John Hawkes looking extra skinny, grisly. When one of these women, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), runs out of the house early in the morning, in a hurry into the woods we know something is afoot.

Durkin unveils a kind of pure evil, that kind of Michael Haneke evil, uncompromising, unglamourized real world nightmares. There’s a palpable fear in Martha’s eyes as she calls her estranged sister, Katie. We still don’t know what’s going on. Durkin splits his time between Martha’s stay with her sister and her new husband, Ted at a swanky upstate New York cottage. Little moments like when Martha freely jumps in the lake naked to swim tell us her time in the cultish commune has stunted her social behaviour.

Durkin flashes back to her time on this farm periodically, revealing ghastly cult-like rituals involving sexual abuse, violence and general social misbehaviour. Under the guidance of it’s leader Patrick (John Hawkes), men and women live like communal living, off the land free from capitalist pleasures. But at the expense of Patrick’s brutal brainwashing.

Durkin’s editing between these two time frames is seamless and by the nature of his matching of scenes implies an impending danger. This spectre of dread hangs over the film, from the first frame to the last. Part of Durkin’s game is how he shoots Martha, played with aplomb by newbie Elizabeth Olsen. Durkin’s camera is constantly lurking over her supple curvy body, teasing us the audience as well as the characters in the film. A subtle trick which supports his theme of sexual exploitation and Patrick’s use of sex as a tool for psychological dominance.

Ambient moody sounds and amplified background noises have us paying attention to every detail in the film. Moments of eerie silence are chilling, and obtuse framing in certain scene have us anticipating fits of violence, sometimes paying off, sometimes not. Though Durkin’s pacing eschews most traditional genre expectations, he does deliver the goods with at least one eye popping shock moment. But it’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening. A throwaway line such as ‘Patrick only has boys’ sends chills down my spine, and the final moments which are played vague and oblique are just as effective as the traditional scares.

With the ending it’s a wrap-up I was half-expecting - half of me wanted traditional closure, the other half had me scared to death at thought of what Durkin would show us if he did. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mouthful of a title, but a special film, cynical but cinematic, and shows a major new talent in its writer/director.

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