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Non-Review Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

The feature debut from director Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a shockingly powerful piece of cinema. Deeply unpleasant and uncannily unsettling, Durkin’s debut is occasionally a bit awkwardly paced, but is intensely gripping for most of its runtime. While the film is making waves for a breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen, it’s John Hawkes who steals the show as the enigmatic and sinister cult leader, known only as Patrick.

A cult film...

Juxtaposing Martha’s attempts to readjust to life with her family in the outside world with flashbacks to her initiation into a small cult, Durkin’s film is nominally something of a suspense thriller. Martha is clearly uncomfortable and unsettled – worried about the noises on the roof of the holiday home (they’re probably falling acorns, she’s assured). Unwilling (or, after two years of conditioning, unable) to express what she has been through, Martha is justifiably worried about whether she can truly escape her “new family.” There are elements of that sort of paranoid thriller to be found, but they are mostly subdued – Durkin knows that to play it as a conventional thriller would do a bit of a disservice to the material.

So, while the last act becomes something of a tense anxiety-inducing thriller, the movie works much better as a psychological drama, exploring how Martha came to be inducted into the cult, and how it affected her.We’re treated to wonderfully uneasy flashbacks of various events, as Martha moves through the cult, transformed from the blushing virgin on her “special night”with Patrick to the one brewing the drugged-up cocktail for Patrick’s next conquest. It’s unnerving how natural Durkin makes this feel – you can see how carefully Patrick has structured the cult around himself, and how he chains in his followers, implicating everybody in his own sordid actions.

The line is dead...

These bleed into the pleasant day, as we’re shown the subtle and surreal ways that Martha’s time in the cult has really left her unable to relate to or interact with her sister and her sister’s new husband. I suspect Durkin has done a great deal of research, if only because he effortlessly crafts a wonderfully complex picture without ever pushing it too far. The movie is creepier for the sense that it’s grounded – it seems like this kind of thing could easily happen. John Hawkes’ mysterious Patrick isn’t that far from a modern-day Charles Manson, a predator with a keen eye for human weakness and a talent for exploiting it.

Durkin is somewhat ambiguous with his story – he wisely, for example, forgoes any back story or development for the cult leader Patrick. However, he also leaves his story open-ended – at both ends. He crafts a fascinating picture of Martha, explaining how she would come to be susceptible to Patrick’s new-age feel-good pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo, with a fractured family life and a weakened support structure – but he never explains how Martha comes into Patrick’s orbit. The earliest flashback see Martha already on the ranch. Where did she meet her recruiter? As much depth as Durkin offers exploring how the group keepstheir new inductees, how sophisticated is their method to lure young people into their sinister web? Similarly, those looking for hard-and-fast closure will be disappointed.

Eyes like a Hawkes...

However, the movie is a wonderful slow boil, and Durkin has a natural talent for framing shots. Frequently crafting an uneasy sense of ambiguity, the director begins shots in one time period, ending them in another. Martha will be conversing with her sister and then talking to Patrick in a flashback. It’s often hard, initially, to tell when a particular scene is taking place – but that’s part of the effect. It feels disjointed and uncomfortable, because it’s meant to.

In many ways, Durkin’s direction reminds me of the stellar job that Lynne Ramsey did with We Need to Talk About Kevin, if only a little bit less honed. He has the same uncanny knack for constructing beautiful and yet disturbing images. One of the best shots in the movie is a steady shot from outside a summer home as three cult members approach. We can see the inhabitants of the house through the big glass windows, oblivious to the three kids approaching in the night. The people in the house move so that they can never see the approaching trouble, and the kids are always perfectly out of the line of sight – all done in one still take from Durkin. I think it might be the most terrifying shot I’ve seen in quite some time.

Calling it quits...

The flip side is that the film takes a little while to find its feet, and to settle into a groove. Although there are only a handful of major players, it seems that Durkin takes his time introducing us to each of them, and allowing us to get a sense of them. There are times when Durkin’s atmospheric camera angles are actually intrusive, drawing attention away from the content of the film itself. However, once the movie gets going, it’s compelling stuff.

The movie’s attracting a great deal of attention as the breakthrough for young Elizabeth Olsen playing the eponymous escapee, and she is really good. However, the movie’s standout performance comes from John Hawkes. I’ve always been fond of Hawkes as a creepy supporting player, one of those actors who has the uncanny ability to appear unsettling without ever seeming to do much. Hawkes garnered a lot of praise for his role in Winter’s Bone, but I think that this might be his best role to date.

Is she firing a Cult .45?

We see relatively little of Patrick. We don’t even discover if that is his last name. We know that he’s well-read and that he’s charismatic. It’s Hawkes that manages to develop the character beyond that – in what little we see of the cult leader, Hawkes lets us know that he’s a very smart and very dangerous man. We see it outright in a scene documenting a home invasion that goes wrong, but that predatory gaze is always there, tucked away in his eyes. He always knows just what to say, espousing zen philosophy, rationalising the most horrid things that he does to his followers, and seemingly excited at the things he could convince them to do for him. There’s no doubt his family would kill for him, but Hawkes makes it clear that Patrick likes that sort of power. It’s unnerving and uncomfortable, but powerfully so.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is powerful stuff, and well worth a look for anybody looking for a heavy psychological drama.

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4 Responses

  1. Heard great things about it, pity the cinemas near me are showing Jack and Jill on most of their screens instead.

    • That is a massive shame. It’s actually been an awesome week for film, and most of them are awesome indies. There should be room for all of them.

      And Jack and Jill? That makes me feel dirty inside.

  2. Never mind about Jack and Jill. The trend is on our/your side. A beautiful review of an incredible film. Thank you for your time.

    • Hopefully time is on our side. I hate to imagine what mainstream cinema might look like in a decade or two, and that’s coming from a guy who actually generally likes a lot of these somewhat staid and safe blockbusters.

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