SFF 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a profoundly devastating and overwhelmingly intense film from first-time filmmaker Sean Durkin. I'll give you fair warning as you are about to read a fairly glowing review. MMMM had an incredible impact on me. The sense of creeping dread that this film accomplishes is truly magnificent and the controversial ending which has missed the mark for some was crushingly perfect in my experience.
MMMM tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who calls her sister Lucy out of the blue one day after having been missing for several years. All Martha tells her sister of her disappearance is that she met a man who eventually lied to her so she left him. We pretty quickly learn that this isn't exactly true as we discover that Martha has spent her missing years in a cult-like commune led by the threatening, waif-like charm of Patrick (John Hawkes).
Durkin employs an oft-used flashback structure to bounce between the past and the present in various clever ways. Seamlessly transitioning between Martha's present and her increasingly portentous memories, Durkin eventually destabilises his heroine's sense of reality completely, and we the viewer are right there with her as the paranoia escalates. This movement of the film from sad discomfort to gut-wrenching horror is gradual and slow. Durkin releases details about Martha's past deliberately and at fascinatingly key moments. While I wouldn't be insincere in saying this does end up playing almost like a horror film without catharsis, I also would be rather reductive in saying so as MMMM is much more than a mere formal exercise in ratcheting up tension.
While Durkin seems determined to keep the whole film decidedly ambiguous (one of the significant factors as to why some viewers may respond negatively) he still is pretty clear about what he wants to examine. The contrast between Martha's present environment at her sister's holiday house in Connecticut and her past time at the commune is a stark one. Her sister's holiday house is a clinical, modern and barren space. With shades of Kubrick or Haneke, Durkin creates a cold environment that jars with Martha's obvious need for community and re-assimilation.
Her time in the commune however has an almost Malick-like sense of earthiness. Farming, sleeping together, and a constant connection to the natural environment underlie an almost facile sense of mounting dread as Martha initially clasps onto this sense of community that seemed to be so obviously lacking in her previous familial life.
The existential core within MMMM will inevitably be alienating for many. It is not a hopeless film but it is also not a hopeful film by any means and the final shot that Durkin leaves us with is as piercing as they come, throwing up the film's ultimate thesis in one shattering swoop.
Formally MMMM presents one of the most accomplished feature debuts in recent memory. Durkin's ability to fuse performance, sound and image with such cohesive force is astounding for a first time film-maker. His use of sound is one of his key strengths and the sound design and score are just sublime. Jody Lee Lipes photography is also remarkable, frequently playing with contrast and light balance in intriguing ways.
The above image comes from a particularly enthralling scene which initially seems as if the filmmakers completely got the light balance wrong when shooting. I remember watching this scene (which in itself is riveting) and leaning forward in my seat as it seemed so unusually dark I could barely make out the character's faces. As I stared more and more intently at the screen trying to calculate the goings on and understand how they could've made such an elementary production mistake without rectifying it I abruptly realised how much more keenly I was concentrating on the screen. This arresting affectual technique reminded me of the way Haneke used diminishing light in a single-shot sequence in Funny Games as a way of drawing the viewer in and conveying a sense of temporal time passing in a way that is unusual to experience in film.
As you can see, I am extraordinarily enamored with this film, but it's not just Durkin's mise-en-scene that is impeccable. Elizabeth Olsen plays the titular character beautifully, balancing a sense of distance and disorientation with a truly relatable and empathic performance. I don't need to tell you how brilliant John Hawkes is either. After his smashing show in Winter's Bone last year he takes his patented brand of charming menace a step further with an ever more emaciated look here. One scene where he plays guitar and sings a song to Martha is simply astonishing.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is undoubtedly one of my favorite films of 2011 so far and if it doesn't rank highly on my end of year top ten list then there must be some amazing films to come. Formally one of the most accomplished feature debuts in years, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE has a cumulative power that, while defiantly minimal, will shake you to your core and haunt you for days. Highly recommended.