Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed By: Sean Durkin
Written By: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elisabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Screened at: Paramount, NYC, 10/18/11
Opens: October 21, 2011
The world awaits the story that will emerge from Sgt. Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Israel’s Hamas enemy, held captive for five years, returned safely enough but looking pale and gaunt. Will he be affected by Stockholm Syndrome, brainwashed by his captors in Gaza who want him to realize that the Arabs have fair political points to make, or will he be disgusted by his treatment enough to denounce Hamas across the board? Though it’s a stretch, Sean Durkin, who wrote and directs “Martha Marcy May Marlene” explores the influence of two years of a unique life in a commune on a brainwashed woman about twenty years of age, the mixed feelings she toys with while residing in a remote Catskill Mountains location in upstate New York, the desire for intimacy with the group contrasted with her need to assert for privacy. There’s little question that Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been stripped of her identity by Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader, a gaunt fellow with piercing eyes and the ability to charm the objects of his affection by composing songs for them and assuring (probably) each girl that “you’re my favorite.”
We do not know how Martha winds up on this farm, though it’s conceivable that she had been dumped by a boyfriend. Her mother dead, she has resided in, and then left the New York home of her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is married to Ted (Hugh Dancy), a rich fellow who rents a spacious summer home by a Connecticut lake. For reasons not specified—nor need they be—she runs away from the commune, refusing to return despite the entreaties of her friend, though (read her expressions) she is as torn between her two identities then as she is throughout the remainder of the film.
Channeling M. Night Shyamalan, whose 2004 film “The Village” finds a town discovering an astonishing truth outside its borders, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is more a study in the psychology of identity than it is a thriller,the title character’s conflict between her two lives informs the entire story. Whether she is being chased down by cult members or not is irrelevant: what is cogent is that she cannot distinguish between the mores of her life on the farm and the cultural standards of people in a bourgeois, manicured location within expensive real estate. She makes repeated faux pas, such as stripping off all her clothes to go for a swim by the lake, horrifying her sister, who implores “You can’t do that; people with children are passing by.”
Jody Lee Lipes behind the lens and Zac Stuart-Pontier in the editor’s chair shift focus from the collective to modern civilization, seamlessly comparing her dive into Connecticut waters with a high jump she negotiates at the farm. Martha, whose name was changed by Patrick to Marcy May in a further effort to change her identity, may be paranoid, but not because she is terrified that the cult will force her back to the Catskills. She simply confuses her experiences in Connecticut with those she had undergone during the recent two-year stretch such as when she is convinced that the bartender at a posh party given by her sister and brother-in-law is a cult member, smashes her glass, tells him “you think you’re so smart!” and runs helter-skelter back to her room past her bewildered sister.
The relationship between her and her two relatives is as tense as that which she often finds on the farm. Sis goes well out of her way to accommodate Martha’s shtick, though brother-in-law becomes fed up enough with her growing insolent behavior as when she declares “You’ll make a terrible mother!” He insists that she depart his premises. Credit Sarah Olsen with a stunning first film role, one which could put her in position for nominations and awards for Best Debut Performance in a Film.
Rated R. 101 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B +
Technical – B+
Overall – B+