Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Postby CAP » Mon Feb 13, 2012 1:34 pm

This one I saw pretty much on the strength of its curious title. Then I remembered I sort of knew it was about a young girl fleeing some sort of sect and unsettling the people she was staying with. And that’s the plot in a nutshell, if you’re after nutshells. The main character is variously known by the four names in the title – so there are identity issues right up front, and that flags what psychology there is underpinning her behaviour. But it takes us most of the movie to appreciate just what it is about the weird sect based on a remote farm in upstate NY that compels her to abandon ship. Psychologically, she’s a mess. But there’s no de-programming group in place for her persuasion. She’s doesn’t even explain this much to her older sister and brother-in-law when she phones them and comes to stay in their posh holiday house somewhere in Connecticut, after a mysterious absence of two years. They think she’s just left her boyfriend.

Boyfriend! That’ll be the Charles Manson-like sect leader, played by the fabulously creepy John Hawkes – last seen in the superb Winter’s Bone. Turns out the sect leader beds all the new girls, as part of their initiation ceremony. No wonder he looks permanently shagged. That Hawkes sure gets the roles…

It’s hard to know where this movie is going at first, since the sect seems like just some kind of fundamentalist rural self-sufficiency thing – although it is notable everyone bar the leader is in their 20s – there is no extended society of oldies and children, although there are a couple of toddlers in the background. Amish breakaways? The contrast with the middleclass straights from NYC (her sister and bro-in-law) initially plays as just one set of social conventions versus another (subversion! Begorrah!) They’re shocked when M goes nude bathing in the nearby lake, for instance. Wow big deal. But her behaviour slides right off the scale when she decides to join them, uninvited, in their bed while they’re having sex. Well, you know… she has been living upstate and all….

The actress, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the notorious Olsen Twins) doesn’t quite do it for me. Though she is strange! Undeniably – big blue eyes, baby face, at least from front on – ‘solid’ shall we say, body and – for me – gratingly harsh street voice. Maybe they should have got Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone as well. Hey that’s an awesome thought. Let me just savour that for a moment in my mental trailers…

Okay - so M is having a hard time adapting to another set of social conventions, but really since she’s only been off the planet for two years it’s implausible that she wouldn’t still have a few clues about how things are done back in civilisation, after all she did run away, she did want to come back to this. So I had a few problems with credibility where her little faux pas’ arise. Beyond that is the question of whether or not she’s just psychotic (sis and her hubby eventually cart her off to a funny farm) in which case her memories or flashbacks of life in the sect become increasingly paranoid and delusional, where the sect break into rich people’s homes and steal stuff, when not slyly taunting them (tossing rocks on the roof, turning on the exercise machine to the max… that gang is just a load of laughs really) later when caught by an owner on one such frolic – resort to crazed murder, casually justified by sect leader Hawkes (and let's face it the boundary between actor and role is definitely blurred with this man!) as "just one of those things". Did these things really happen to M? Or are these just her projections of a steady dissolution of social boundaries?

The chief weakness of the film is that these ideas are never quite developed enough. There is a strong feminist line running through the film, that had me guessing that the director and/or writer was female – but I was wrong. Sean Durkin wrote and directed it. Here he is at some festival (Sundance?) with his lovely young star. He looks like a dork, right? I think that might explain some of the film’s emotional as well as narrative gaps.
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