October 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm #41869
Tony Scott/NY Times calls it impressive, but has some reservations about Olsen’s performance:
Woman Escapes a Cult but Not Her Own Past
By A. O. SCOTT
As its title suggests, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a story of fractured identity, in which a young woman tries to negotiate incompatible versions of herself, all the while wondering who she really is. The film, Sean Durkin’s impressively self-assured debut feature, switches back and forth between two periods in its protagonist’s life — an indeterminate span when she is part of a cult in rural New York and the time just after her escape from the group, when she has found refuge with her older sister and brother-in-law in their rented lakeside vacation house.
The sister knows her as Martha, though she does not necessarily know her very well. The leader of the cult, who claims spiritual and physical intimacy with all his followers, has christened her Marcy May. (Marlene is the all-purpose pseudonym female cult members use when answering the telephone.)
Whatever her name, and whatever her mood — it ranges from vaguely unsettled to acutely anguished — Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen, a very pretty actress whose on-camera presence is at once vivid and interestingly blurred. Her features seem to shift, appearing sharp from some angles and soft from others, and her body can look alternately sturdy and frail, depending on the circumstances.
Ms. Olsen’s performance is both the key to the film and the source of its sometimes frustrating opacity. Like Todd Haynes’s “Safe” (though with less ambition or intellectual rigor), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is, in part, a psychological case study of someone whose inner life is permanently out of reach, if it even exists at all.
Martha’s background is left deliberately sketchy. We know that she and her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), have some family unhappiness behind them, but we never learn precisely what happened between them, or to their parents. Nor do we know what drew Martha into the thrall of Patrick, the Svengali of an agrarian sex commune whose sun-dappled fields and lithe young bodies suggest a spiritually ambitious Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. But it is clear that her passivity and uncertainty make her perfect prey for Patrick and his group.
Everything is friendly and relaxed at first, with fatherly affection and an occasional rebuke from Patrick, who is played with sinewy, sinister charisma by John Hawkes. Gradually an uglier side of his community emerges, and it starts to look less like a progressive summer camp than a new incarnation of the Manson family. Female acolytes are initiated into the group by being drugged and raped by the leader, and the most disturbing scenes show Martha undergoing this ordeal and then, later, preparing a new recruit for it.
But life with Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), has its own difficulties, and Martha’s disgust at what she sees as their shallow, materialistic sham of normalcy suggests that she has held onto some of Patrick’s teachings even after fleeing his world. Some of her behavior — plunging into the lake without a bathing suit, curling up on Ted and Lucy’s bed after interrupting their love-making — indicates that the cult has stripped away her sense of propriety and her inhibitions.
The film does not necessarily see this as a bad thing, and not only because the camera relishes the sight of Ms. Olsen with no clothes on. The narrative structure, switching back and forth between Patrick’s utopia and Lucy and Ted’s middle-class dream, creates a sense of symmetry, or even equivalence, between the two places. In both of them displays of compassion and generosity mask selfish agendas, and solicitude turns into collusion. Ted, an arrogant architect with a British accent, is far less compelling than Patrick, a soulful monster but not necessarily a hypocrite. And the cult at least supplied her with friends.
Mr. Durkin conveys Martha’s dissociation by means of a number of compositional and formal strategies. He shoots Ms. Olsen in off-center close-ups, and frequently induces confusion for the viewer at the beginning of a scene, about where it is taking place. Are we back at Patrick’s farm, or at home with Ted and Lucy?
After a while this technique starts to seem like a trick, and the ingenuity of the movie’s structure begins to feel evasive rather than probing. The drama is all in the jumps and juxtapositions, rather than in any sustained consideration of Martha’s experience.
She remains a blank space in the middle of a film that is an impressive piece of work without achieving quite the emotional impact it intends. We are witnessing not the disintegration of a personality, but rather the careful construction of a series of effects. Patrick periodically criticizes his disciples, including Martha, for failing to be open enough with him, and that is also a shortcoming of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which is a bit too coy, too clever and too diffident to believe in.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Sex, violence, swearing.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENEOctober 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm #41871
Better for Olsen in LATimes
Movie review: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’
Identity and the destructive power of cults on kids are played to perfection in Sean Durkin’s existential thriller. Elizabeth Olsen gives an edgy, raw turn.
By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
October 21, 2011
“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” with a frightfully fearless Elizabeth Olsen playing all of those Ms, is a difficult title that perfectly suits this wonderfully difficult film. It’d be easy enough to say this is a drama about the destructive power of cults on youth, which it is, but really what writer-director Sean Durkin has given us is an existential thriller about identity and just how tenuous a grasp we have on who we really are.
Already a hit on the festival circuit, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is also a coming-out party of sorts — an impressive first feature for Durkin and a potent debut for its star, still best known as the Olsen twins’ younger sister. This performance, which has rightly put Elizabeth Olsen in the awards season game, should go a long way toward changing all that, with the actress’ mix of edgy confidence and raw vulnerability suggesting a wealth of possibilities.
The story itself spins around a backcountry cult in upstate New York that looks organically ideal, preaching sustainable farming and a sense of family to its small collective of aimless teens. The place is run by Patrick, a guitar-picking Svengali in work-worn jeans, with John Hawkes bringing a different, even more frightening chill than he did to Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone.” Drawing the runaway Martha into the fold is a slow seduction that evolves with remarkable, yet unremarkable, ease — the need and desperation playing around her eyes. “You look like a Marcy May,” he tells her with a smile and an appraising eye, which may rank as one of the most sinister pick-up lines ever.
Durkin begins at the end, in a sense, opening with a fully inculcated Marcy May making a run for the woods that edge the farm like a prettified prison fence. A frantic phone call to her long estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) sets in motion her escape from Patrick’s grasp. But walking away is only the first step. The real struggles come as she tries to shed the damage of the cult and reclaim Martha, the girl she was, the girl who knew how to function in the real world.
That struggle will define the rest of the film, with the fragments of her years on the farm and the physical and emotional toll it exacted surfacing to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, those scenes are triggered by dreams, but more often the flashbacks grow out of random sounds that Durkin uses to evocative effect. A skittering pebble, a footfall, tree leaves kicked up on a windy night throw us back into Marcy May’s life in the cult. You start to tense, like Martha, at the slightest noise. All of which serves only to unsettle her family, which has no idea what Martha’s been through — what she, and it, are really dealing with.
Though there is a lot of subtlety in the way things unfold, there is a directness to Durkin’s dialogue that is as refreshing as it is jarring. And rather than using a lot of the “therapy speak” that finds its way into so many films about emotional issues, he instead lets frustration boil over into “What’s wrong with you?” recriminations, which feel stark but true.
As is the case in most families, Martha’s problems are not merely her own. In the time Martha’s been gone, Lucy has married Ted (Hugh Dancy), a successful architect; their still new relationship is strained by Martha’s increasingly bizarre behavior. Paulson is particularly good as Martha’s guilt-ridden older sister, trying to make up for trading their troubled family life for college and leaving Martha behind. The ways in which the sisters skirmish — Lucy torn between love and impatience, Martha between gratitude and resentment — are exceptional for their understatement.
Dancy is likable as Ted, going from accepting big brotherliness to an angry pragmatism, but he’s not as good, or as challenged, as he has been dying opposite Laura Linney on this season of Showtime’s “The Big C.”
It is Olsen’s willingness to expose all of Martha’s scars — some physically brutal, others as painful for their emotional humiliation — that carries the day in both worlds. Neither the filmmaker nor the actress holds anything back; whether she’s stripping naked to dive into the lake at her sister’s or crawling into Patrick’s bed on the farm, Olsen infuses the moments with the unease of a conflicted soul.
Life at her sister’s is defined by the sleek, minimalist lake house that is literally and metaphorically miles from the cult. Director of photography Jody Lee Lipes, who shot another provocative recent indie hit, “Tiny Furniture,” gives the look of the film an intriguing sense of irony. The lake house — the safe house — is colder, relying on the humans inside for warmth, while the sprawling farm has a weathered, rambling beauty that belies the rigid rules and the wrongs that take place inside.
As Martha’s memories surface, a portrait of the cult begins to emerge, its insidious side creeping up on you, as it would a new recruit. The increasingly twisted counterculture philosophy that Patrick delivers so smoothly, the peer pressure of the community that brooks no dissent, helps you understand how the broken can be sucked in. Hawkes is absolutely mesmerizing to watch as an evil Messiah, his flock gathered at his feet as he picks at an old guitar, with Louisa Krause (“Taking Woodstock”) a standout as Zoe, Patrick’s favorite before Marcy May came along.
The filmmaker sometimes stumbles as Martha tries to navigate normal — the cult side of her story is the more seductive. Yet like life itself, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a film of rough edges and no easy answers, nearly perfect in its imperfection.October 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm #41872
Elizabeth Olsen is gonna be the new Jennifer Lawrence!October 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm #41874
I’m not so sure that she will get a nomination….Tilda’s film is small and the advance buzz is more worthy.
I still believe that
are locks….October 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm #41875
Peter Travers’ Review:
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Directed by Sean Durkin
Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
By PETER TRAVERS
OCTOBER 20, 2011
Right now you probably know Elizabeth Olsen as the younger sister of the tycoon Olsen twins. After you see Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’ll know her as an actress of uncommon subtlety and feeling. It’s a sensational performance in a gripping psychological thriller, from gifted first-time writer-director Sean Durkin, that reveals its secrets in the silence between words.
Olsen plays Martha, a young woman we meet on the day she decides to run away from a cult located in the Catskills. Durkin and the skilled cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes present scenes of life in the cult farmhouse with a painterly serenity that only later flashbacks will dispel. After two years in this life, Martha calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who unblinkingly offers Martha the comfort of the Connecticut lake house she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Adjustment doesn’t come easy for Martha, who thinks she can deprogram herself without telling anyone else about her ordeal. Lucy and Ted going at it in bed doesn’t deter Martha from climbing in with them. And the fear of simple socializing almost matches Martha’s terror of being found out and pulled back to the cult.
Durkin shows us Martha’s past in sequences of escalating menace. John Hawkes is indelibly hypnotic at conveying the brilliance and brutality of Patrick, the cult leader who seduces Martha into a life subservient to only one ego: his. When the outside world intrudes, female cultists – whose sexual initiation with Patrick is labeled a “cleansing” – use the name Marlene. But Patrick thinks Martha looks like a Marcy May (title mystery solved). Gradually the film emerges as a mesmerizing meditation on identity. Paulson shines as a woman who can’t figure out who her sister really is. We share her impatience, especially when Patrick stages a violent invasion. But it’s Olsen, as a damaged soul clinging to shifting ground, who makes this spellbinder impossible to shake.October 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm #41876
What early emotional pain motivated a young woman to vanish without a trace and join a rural cult? Where did she grow up? What was she like before she gave herself over to warped rules of female sexual subservience and nighttime robbery missions? Why did she stay hidden for so long? Why did she finally decide to leave the group? None of this is ever explained in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a sometimes maddening but undeniably intriguing psychological drama about just such a woman. And there are still more unanswered questions in writer-director Sean Durkin’s provocative feature debut, such as this stumper: Why is a breakout star as compelling as Elizabeth Olsen directed to withhold so much when she is capable of conveying so much more?
Olsen — the younger sister of famous twin performing pros Mary-Kate and Ashley, but possessed of striking talent and beauty that need no familial hook — plays Martha. And also Marcy May. As well as Marlene, since all three names describe the same malleable woman. Martha was her name in girlhood. Marcy May is her nom de cult, given to the newcomer by the group’s paternalistic, seductively twisted leader, Patrick (Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes, adding to his impressive collection of skinny, charismatic, dangerous men). Marlene? Well, that’s a variation on her Marcy May disguise. The movie’s title, honestly, is impossible to remember. Even losing one M name would have helped.
Early in the movie, Marcy May escapes from her nameless sect and becomes Martha again. For such a passive girl, it’s a feat of exceptional bravery — one that’s never fully accounted for. She’s taken in by her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who with her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), is the proud owner of a sleek Connecticut lakeside vacation home. And it’s here that Martha begins to relearn the basics of conventional society, including this one: It’s not okay to climb into bed with one’s sister and her husband, especially when they’re having sex. In Martha’s defense, bedding was communal back on the funny farm; so was clothing.
Relearning the niceties of upper-middle-class behavior in an expensive, yuppie-aesthetic weekend house is only one of many hurdles for this damaged young woman. MMMM emphasizes the social and economic discrepancies between Martha’s then and now, and alludes to Lucy’s guilt about not being there for her younger sister in the past. She’s also not really there in the present. If she were more nurturing, Lucy might know to ask, ”What the hell happened to you?” in a way that makes it safe for Martha to answer rather than to go glassy-eyed.
Anyway, Martha’s got bigger challenges. Now that she’s literally out of the woods, she’s in a kind of shock, afflicted with nightmares, hallucinations, and possibly false memories. MMMM‘s major achievement is in wordlessly expressing that queasy sense of unstable personality. Sleeping in a real bed or wearing a dress she can call her own, Martha falls prey to dread about the future. The cult may really be out to find her, get her, threaten her — or she could just be confusing her paranoia with reality. In their gleaming state-of-the-art house, with room for the baby they hope to have, Lucy and Ted may be vulnerable to invasion — or Martha might just be reliving past experiences of violent breaking and entering. This is where Olsen flourishes. She carries the story with authority, both emotionally and physically. With her lush shape and grounded stance, she displays the opposite of her sisters’ boho-matchstick style. She looks like she wants to tell us more. And as Martha begins to crack, those discrepancies are mirrored by the evocative cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes (Tiny Furniture), especially as he contrasts the idyllic/scary terrain of the upstate New York farm, where Marcy May lived in modest subsistence, with the idyllic/scary Connecticut lakeside estate, where Martha now wanders, adrift.
Martha Marcy May Marlene leaves a viewer hanging, quite literally, lost in an enveloping fog of mood without resolution. Olsen, meanwhile, definitely marks her arrival. She leaves a viewer excited about the creative future of a young actor who looks like she knows exactly who she is and what she can do. B+October 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm #41877
[quote=”MadsonMelo”]Elizabeth Olsen is gonna be the new Jennifer Lawrence!
LOL!! That sounds funny considering that Lawrence just broke out last year. [/quote]
They probably mean young, semi-unknown actress getting the Oscar nod for a small, dark film that came out of Sundance. Olsen is a bit different from Lawrence. I called Lawrence’s nod last summer and argued that her buzz would only grow by Oscar time. Olsen isn’t receiving quite the amount of aggressive acclaim as Lawrence, and neither is her movie. She’s still a definite contender for a nomination.
Davis and Williams remain the only “locks”. Though Close is likelyOctober 20, 2011 at 8:30 pm #41878
What’s with the disappearing threads.October 20, 2011 at 8:49 pm #41879
What are you referring to BI?
I checked before I started this (tougher without a search engine) to see if there already was one for this film. Had there been one before?October 20, 2011 at 8:57 pm #41880
sf, your post was deleted about Close and Davis being likely nominees (Williams with a good shot) and Streep’s film needing to be screened first.October 20, 2011 at 9:05 pm #41881
Oh, I did that myself – it had been the most recent post for several hours, I was tired of seeing that listed, and besides, I try to keep my mentions of “what is a lock” down to once a week or more and I did one a couple days ago
I thought BI might have been suggesting older threads aren’t being keptOctober 20, 2011 at 9:39 pm #41882
This thread disappeared from the first page and I wasn’t able to find it until I looked on my recent posts. I made a comment and it came back. Perhaps Sean deleting his post made the thread disappear.October 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm #41883
That’s strange, but that shouldn’t have had anything to do with it.
To test, I will post below, delete it, and see what happens.October 20, 2011 at 9:59 pm #41884
I posted something a moment ago, deleted it, the thread was still here.
The connection would have been that if the person who started a thread deletes a later post, it has the effect of deleting the whole thread, at least in the open forums. Doesn’t make much sense – but like I said, it didn’t happen when I just deleted the test post.