“You look like a ‘Marcy May’”, the creepy leader of a hippie cult, Patrick (John Hawkes) tells Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). That summarizes what the first three words in this tongue-twister of a title of this excellent film signify. As for ‘Marlene’, I would rather leave it for the viewer to find out. It’s an interesting little part that one would miss if not very attentive.
As a matter of fact, the whole film pretty much plays out steadily and engulfs your senses in its own sweet way, thanks to the terrific original screenplay and its treatment by debutant director Sean Durkin.
At the break of dawn, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the much prettier and much cooler younger sister of the Olsen twins) flees from an isolated house inhabited by a number of people, somewhere in the Catskill mountains. She later gets in touch with her elder sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her to her beautiful weekend home in Connecticut. Martha withholds what she’s been through from her sister. In a narrative that flashes back and forth we learn that Martha had been in the company of a strange cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes) who preaches some twisted philosophy which all the runaways under him blindly follow. Martha has also been a runaway, who disappeared from Lucy’s life for a couple of years or more. Lucy is happily married to Ted (Hugh Dancy). While the couple try their level best to accommodate Lucy’s returned sibling, despite her difficult attitude, it becomes increasingly apparent that living with Patrick’s hippie group has had a damaging effect on Martha’s psyche and she can’t seem to adjust to normal life again……..
For a debut feature length, Sean Durkin handles the film like a pro. He is obviously influenced by the minimalistic style of most European art films and it shows. As mentioned earlier, instead of resorting to conventional storytelling, Durkin feeds us a slow meal, little by little, steadily increasing the dose with each morsel as he unravels the chilling back-story of what actually happened and why it is not entirely unexpected why Martha is socially inept. There are surprises in store, but not in the way most modern films treat them…there are no lame gimmicks of jump-twists suddenly shown like trump cards towards the climax. Each surprise is delivered in parts; these parts, including some seriously disturbing moments, are sprinkled across the narrative and gently thrown at us unsuspecting audiences.
The constant flashing back and forth of the narrative could have tried the viewer’s patience had it not been for the very mature handling of this device with the help of some intelligent match cuts. The placement of scenes and buildup of the narrative couldn’t have been better. Durkin certainly knows how to tell a story. Scenes that are especially tense and brutal are handled with extra finesse. The sound design is another fine quality of this film and deserves accolades. It adds that extra flavor to an already brilliantly filmed sequence. It reminded me of David Lynch’s signature sound effects in many ways….
The acting is terrific…Elizabeth Olsen runs away with an unforgettable lead performance. She brings to life, this really distressed young girl in need of help, who you want to empathize with but are unable to decide whether she actually deserves kindness. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Lucy, the caring sister who is desperately trying hard to get through to her younger sibling who just refuses to open out, as well as balancing her married life and plans to conceive. It is a great supporting act indeed! Ditto for Hugh Dancy who does a terrific job as Ted, the supportive husband, who makes a sincere attempt to put up with his wife’s little sister who gradually manages to get on his nerves; there are moments of some genuinely well-written drama between these three characters. And lastly there’s John Hawkes as the sleazy, creepy looking Patrick, a self-proclaimed “teacher and a leader” of the hippie group where our protagonist loses her way. His wicked smile and domineering ways and absurd views disgust and enrage you and make you despise him. This scorn on the audiences’ part is testimony to how great his performance ultimately is.
The film is near flawless, but for very minor problems with a couple of instances in the proceedings, which seemed a little forced and a tad unnecessary but not in a big way. 2011 has been a great year for cinema and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” belongs to the best of 2011. It is a masterstroke in film-making for Sean Durkin who seems to have the knack for making quality stuff and that makes him a fine young director to look out for. One wonders what the Academy were smoking ‘cause this film has failed to get any nomination at all! It is at times like these when I have to question the credibility of these “prestigious” Oscars Awards! Oh well….