Last week, I had the privilege to attend a special screening–with my writing partner Kamaria Porter–of what, I predict, will be a serious Oscar contender come February. The director Sean Durkin and star, Elisabeth Olsen (yes, that’s Mary Kate and Ashley’s younger sister) were there for a little Q&A which was loads of fun. It was an excellent evening and I might’ve even been a little starstruck (wait, no I definitely was). Durkin and Olsen were very well spoken and what they had to say really enriched my understanding of their haunting and powerfully executed film. Mark my words, this is going to be one of the most talked about films of the awards season. Revew follows:
Sean Durkin’s directorial debut is as good as they come. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a young woman (Elisabeth Olsen) who escapes a violent, sexually aberrant, the off-the-grid community that she had been a member of for two years and goes to live with her sister. Attempting to assimilate with her new life, she is haunted by her dark past and uncertain of her future.
It’s not giving anything away to explain that each name in the title represents a different name Elisabeth Olsen’s lead character has taken over the course of her life. Each one represents another self, another life and her conflict is knowing which one of them she truly is. Her journey isn’t an easy one to describe. I was sometimes entranced, other times horrified and always uneasy. John Hawkes as Patrick, the ‘cult leader’ figure, is unforgettable. His performance is going to show up in my nightmares.
The lead character exists in an uncomfortable split between two different family dynamics. As Marcy May, living in upstate New York with Patrick and his disciples, she is encouraged to be open and relational, often in inappropriate ways. It’s a great contrast to the refuge of her sister Lucy’s Connecticut summer home, which is isolated and lonely. There, as Martha, she gets her own space, and lots of it, which makes her just as uneasy, a physical distance which translates to her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law. She is constantly looking out the window, remembering and even longing for her past life. Durkin makes certain you feel her desire to return to the farm and the woods. Life under Patrick’s roof is both demented and attractive. In one particularly memorable scene, we’re shown dreamy, Dionysian images of Marcy May and her ‘family’ swimming naked in a beautiful river, an image that suggests a return to pre-modern purity, a fleeting vision of Elysium which is later tainted by darker memories.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intimate character study. Elisabeth Olsen takes her role by the horns with a powerhouse performance and never lets up. Though understated exploration of psychological issues is common Sundance fare, this film is unique in its power and intensity. It’s never mopey or self-centered, the stakes are high and the conflicts, both internal and external, are dire. Durkin makes the twofold achievement of subtle themes and overt storytelling. The plot is not obtuse or deconstructed. I always knew what was going on. In fact, for all the film’s dreaminess, the story and the characters seemed all too real, which makes the story’s events all the more disturbing.
The film’s themes extend far beyond what’s normally achieved by a first-time indie from a hot young director. The hard duality between Martha/Marcy May’s two ‘homes’ feels like a thesis on the state of American life in the 21st Century. Durkin’s America is a fractal landscape that forces people to inhuman lifestyles: Patrick’s is frighteningly immanent, Lucy’s is painfully abstracted. ‘How then shall we live?’ is the lead character’s quandary. It’s an aching question that I felt long after I left the theater. Durkin’s script and directorial voice rings with the literary weight of great American fiction writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ambrose Bierce, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unforgettable experience, deeply unsettling and engrossing. I do not look forward to repeat viewings, but they will probably happen, because this film is too perfectly made to only see once.