Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Netflix This: Martha Marcy May Marlene

     Martha Marcy May Marlene is a little overlooked gem from last year, a film that is thought-provoking, weird and exciting. Martha is a girl who is lost in life. We're really not quite sure why. So she joins this family in upstate New York that is trying to live off of the grid and be self-sustainable. They give her a new name: Marcy May (Marlene is the name the girls use when answering the telephone). This is one of those Drink the Kool-Aid families, a family where the oldest male, Patrick (played awesomely creepy by John Hawkes--of Winter's Bone and Eastbound and Down fame--with his scrawny body looking like a menacing skeleton), essentially rapes all of the new girls that decide to join. "The first time is so special," Martha's cult sister states in her brainwashed state.
     The film's about psychological damage and the denial, love, and betrayal that someone can feel when they are being manipulated into fitting in. Patrick, through a look of the eyes or encouraging words, can make any girl feel like she is fulfilling a specific role, even if that role is bearing unwanted children or committing a crime, sometimes a minor crime and sometimes a brutal one. All of these girls (and some of the boys) are vulnerable to his tactics--gentle when need be and harsh when the situation calls for it.
     After an unseen (until late in the run time of the film) event, Martha decides that she wants to leave the cult,  so she escapes and calls her sister, Lucy, who is recently married to a rich man, Ted, with a beautiful house on a lake and many expensive material possessions. Lucy takes Martha in, and from then on Martha Marcy May Marlene is told in corresponding scenes of present day at the lake house and recent-past scenes at the cult farm. Usually the scenes bleed into each other, with a memory from one time period reminding Martha of a specific--sometimes horrific--event. Lucy cares for Martha, but it's clear that their relationship has never been very sisterly, and eventually she comes to realize the depths of Martha's psychosis. The possibility of Patrick or another cult member coming to the lake to forcefully take her back looms large in the second half of the film until it reaches a fever pitch of tension and anticipation.
     Though John Hawkes is practically perfect as cult leader Patrick, the real performance that powerfully anchors the film is Elizabeth Olsen's as Martha. Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, clearly got the talent and correct eating habits of the three actresses. Martha Marcy May Marlene is Elizabeth's first film role, and what a wonderful performance it is. Between her natural vulnerability and honest portrayal of a girl who has been manipulated, she is an actress who is destined to perform some great film roles. She runs the gamut of emotion with depth and skill: anger, love, happiness, flippancy, selfishness and fear. It's safe to say that no one will mistake her for Mary-Kate or Ashley in the next New York Minute sequel.
     The film is one that asks plenty of questions and answers only some of them. The viewers are left thinking, even once the credits start rolling up the screen. How can someone get so involved in a place like this? How can one decipher the thin line between actual love and manipulation? And is it possible, physically or (especially) mentally, to leave a known, sometimes vicious world behind to try and start a better life? These are some of the questions that don't get answered. But Martha Marcy May Marlene does answer one question: can this story and this cast create one of the best independent films of 2011? That answer is a definite "Yes".

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