Monday, August 20, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by Sean Durkin.
2011. Rated R, 102 minutes.
Sarah Paulson
Hugh Dancy
Brady Corbet
Maria Dizzia
Julia Garner
Louisa Krause

After two years of not speaking with anyone in her family, Marlene (Olsen) suddenly calls her sister Lucy (Paulson) from a payphone. Surprised and relieved, Lucy rushes out to pick up her baby sis from two hours away. Her and her husband Ted (Dancy) let Marlene stay with them until she can get back on her feet. They don’t realize how far a climb that is. Marlene is obviously damaged, but they don’t understand why. She won’t tell them what we already know: she’s just escaped from a cult.

We watch Marlene try in vain to make the transition back into “normal” life. She seems to know she’s done the right thing yet she can’t shrug off the off-putting communal habits she’s picked up. Neither can she stop replaying in her head the horrors she’s endured. She’s been psychologically and physically manipulated. It all haunts her.

Elizabeth Olson does an amazing job being haunted. She makes Marlene a study in fragility mixed with ill-timed, hallucination or nightmare driven outbursts. At times, she’s an unapologetically brazen, raving lunatic. At others she’s so timid she seems to be trying to hide within herself. All of it is wrapped in paranoia as she’s never quite sure that the people she’s left behind aren’t coming to get her. It’s a high-wire act balancing a plethora of emotions, each seamlessly inhabiting the character so that none feel false.

As Lucy, Sarah Paulson is also very good. She assumes multiple roles in Marlene’s life. She’s both motherly and sisterly. She even tries her hand as an amateur therapist. She probes for clues, and tries to do so delicately in an effort to keep from upsetting the applecart. This proves to be a task easier said than done.

Wisely, the two parts of Marlene’s life we’re shown run side by side through the use of flashbacks. It the tale had been told in a linear fashion it runs the risk of being less impactful. One part or the other would be too dominant. Told as it is, if provides us with easy reference points in the other half of the story. The pain, or the result of the pain we see as it’s being caused stays fresh in our minds.

Despite subject matter that seems ready-made for a traditional thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene forgoes most genre conventions. Where most movies would build towards a dramatic showdown and/or a daring escape, this movie is only interested in the possibility of the former and totally downplays the latter. In fact, escape is the first thing that happens and it’s never mentioned again. As a result, we get a movie that plays more like a slice-of-life than a dramatization, albeit a very dark slice. Like many such movies, the ending isn’t a climax, but a stopping point. It’s an intensely interesting one that opens up plenty of possibilities forcing us to confront the questions it raises without giving us any of the answers.

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