Today: February 27, 2024
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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Come the end of February, regardless of who’s on stage in Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, weeping in front of a global television audience of millions, a wee gold man clutched in their sweaty fist

Come the end of February, regardless of who’s on stage in Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, weeping in front of a global television audience of millions, a wee gold man clutched in their sweaty fist, tearfully thanking their God, their mom and calling for a free Tibet, I defy you not to have a single thought ricocheting around the inside of your skull; that little Olsen girl was robbed!

Maybe it’ll be Glenn Close for her di-diddley-dee-dee Oirish take on Yentl – “Begorrah! Oim sick of all this gang rape and lack of opportunity for women in the Emerald Oisle! Oi think Oi’ll put on this suit Oi just found and pretend to be a fecking unfunny Robin Williams!” (you watch Albert Nobbs and tell me she doesn’t look like the artist formerly known as Mork from Ork…). Maybe it’ll be Meryl Streep for her performance as a Spitting Image puppet. Or lovely Michelle Williams because she just seems so darn sad and brave in interviews ever since Heath died (c’mon, we’re all thinking it…). Or Viola Davis for playing a stereotype in The Help. Seriously folks, is that the best a black actress can expect these days? Playing a maid? Ten years ago this woman got to play an astronaut alongside George Clooney for God’s sake! She could’ve played a maid 70 years ago! Or maybe it’ll be Rooney Mara for The Girl Who Shopped At The Apple Store. I hope it’s Rooney Mara. She showed real commitment to her role. She got her nipples pierced and everything! Call me shallow but that impresses me; no-one else ventilated their mammaries for a film this year. At least, not one you can see in a theatre. Whoever gets it though, and I’m sure they’ll deserve it, they won’t be as good as Elizabeth Olsen is in Martha Marcy May Marlene who hasn’t even been nominated for her beautiful, instinctive performance as a cult survivor.

Probably the scariest non-horror horror movie you’ll see all year, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a quietly terrifying study of paranoia. We first meet Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) as she’s escaping the farm compound of the hippie cult she’s part of. Pursued through the woods by half-glimpsed figures, she makes it to the relative safety of the nearest town, is eating in the local diner when she is found by Watts (Brady Corbett), one of the young men from the cult. Handsome and sincere, he tries to convince her to return with him. He never raises his voice, never hits her, never threatens her, is never overtly menacing, but her unease makes plain the danger he represents. As soon as he leaves, she runs to the nearest payphone, makes a desperate phone call to the sister she hasn’t seen in the last two years.

Safely ensconced in the lakefront summer home of uptight sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and yuppie architect brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha (her given name) tries to settle back into some semblance of normal middle class life. Haunted by memories of cult life and messianic guru Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha finds it hard to adjust. At times almost naively innocent, she thinks nothing of stripping off and swimming naked or climbing into bed with her sister and her husband after a nightmare (even when they’re having quite intense sex). At other times, she’s cruel, manipulative, needy. Terrified of the cult reclaiming her, she has the 1000-yard stare of a combat survivor, finds it impossible to open up and tell the truth about her experiences, has violent mood swings. She jumps at shadows, hears noises in the night, she’s sure she’s being watched. Is she? Or is her fragile mental state slowly disintegrating under the pressure…?

Hypnotic and almost unbearably tense from the first frame, writer/director Sean Durkin has created a deeply unsettling piece of work that finds an escalating sense of menace in the mundane, the ordinary. Drifting between her paranoid present and her almost rose-tinted memories of commune life, he presents Martha as a lost soul, a naïve young girl who, flashbacks reveal, is seduced into what seems an idyllic, loving community, the extended family she craves. Yet Durkin never presents Martha as powerless. The choice to get involved with the cult, at least at first, is hers. She is drawn to the simplicity of the life the charismatic Patrick offers, a life free of responsibilities, free of hang-ups. Martha’s looking for acceptance. But acceptance comes at the price of her individuality; like all the other members she must sacrifice her will to his. Patrick’s love, like most people’s, is conditional. She even loses her name (as do all the women) when Patrick decides she looks “more like a Marcy May.” She chooses to offer herself up, to willingly subjugate herself. Even when, in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, she’s drugged and raped by Patrick as part of her “cleansing” initiation, she’s never presented as a victim. Later in the film she’s a willing participant in the “cleansing” of other recruits; grooming and preparing them for Patrick’s attention. Similarly when she makes her break for freedom, it’s clear that she’s taking back her life; she’s recovering the power she abdicated.

As the charming, sincere, charismatic Patrick, John Hawkes is brilliant, delivering a subtle, layered, intense performance that’s as scary as his Uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. The ultimate control freak, Patrick subdues followers to his will through a mixture of drugs, rape and the acoustic love songs he plucks on his guitar. As played by Hawkes, Patrick is a seductive demon, a reptilian charmer, who, even when you find him in your house in the middle of the night, can hoodwink you into believing he means you no harm. Right up until the knife slides home. Clearly modeled on Charles Manson, Patrick uses sex as a tool to suppress his followers. Rape both binds them and indoctrinates them into a world of male dominance. Taking away their names and control of their sexuality takes away their identities, moulds them to his vision. He gives them new names, new identities. They’re even taught to answer the telephone as “Marlene” so they don’t scare off potential recruits. Maybe in Patrick’s head all women are “Marlene.” When he tells Martha (or Marcy May) that she’s his favourite and he’s never letting her go, you believe him despite knowing he’s probably told every women that. And he’s right; even after her escape, Patrick still hasn’t let Martha go, he’s still there in her head.

The film belongs though to Elizabeth Olsen. Ably supported by Paulson and Dancy as her increasingly frustrated family, Olsen is a revelation, giving an intelligent, instinctive, star-making turn as Martha. A blend of innocent awkwardness and knowing sexuality, of vulnerable steel, she’s both needy and contained, delivering a brave, committed, truthful performance as the mentally fracturing Martha. She’s magnetic, totally commanding your attention, subtly conveying the churning emotions and warring impulses within. Isolated and alone, even in a party full of people, she’s an injured animal, brittle, defensive, licking her wounds and trying to heal her damaged psyche. The barely controlled terror in Olsen’s eyes is haunting, conveying the fear that, as much as she believes the cult are stalking her, perhaps her biggest demons lurk in her own head. It’s a powerful, commanding debut that should have been rewarded.

Downright scary and deeply unsettling throughout, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a hypnotic, eerie exercise in sustained tension. It dares to ask questions, to make the audience think, while remaining frustratingly opaque, offering no easy answers. Uncomfortable and ambiguous, Martha Marcy May Marlene is bold, thought-provoking cinema that credits the audience with as much intelligence as its creators.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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