Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – Review

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene is a building drama that sometimes feels like a thriller – and yet there is very little action and slowly paced. The thriller aspect plays off an anticipation and anxiety that are felt both by the audience and the characters, specifically Martha, capitalizing on the tremendous performances. Writer-director Sean Durkin also infuses the film with ambiguity – the audience is never sure if Martha does truly have something to fear or if she is just completely emotionally compromised by her experiences within the cult-like community she flees at the beginning. Maybe the best aspect of the film is the narrative structure that Durkin employs, seamlessly transitioning between the present and the past. It works so well because the script has been expertly written to have scenes in the present play off the past and vice versa, while having each build towards a feeling of dread for Martha – it is really quite an extraordinary well-done narrative. Durkin also tackles family as an institution in the film. Martha is seemingly much more at ease and finds a real place with her ‘cult’ community (until things start to get a little dark), whereas she is certainly treated as an outsider and a lesser member in her own sister’s house. It is almost an attack on the current (and more traditional) idea of family, in that within our own family (parents and siblings) we should be the most comfortable and close with these people but in reality it is often outsiders that we connect to more so – as we choice these people while family is essentially forced luck – family as a unit of blood relation may be (or already is) more of an archaic notion in our seemingly modern society, where we are more spread out and more reliant of superficial communication (and maybe more selfish). None of the blood relationships that Martha has seem to meet the level of comfort that she has when first integrated into the ‘cult’ community, which then plays more into the paranoia and total emotional and to an extent psychological collapse that she faces when that community turns out to be problematic for her. Durkin also allows the performances to be emotive and does not try to force his characters into anything inorganically. Something else that struck me about the film was its shooting style – in that Durkin seemed to almost have a voyeuristic approach to the way he shot Martha (it reminded me a little of the work of Larry Clark), putting the audience in the mindset of Patrick or even Ted to some degree. It feels a little disarming, because clearly Martha is sexualized but at the same time she is fragile if not broken, making the style a little on the uncomfortable side (than sexy). Martha Marcy May Marlene overall is a very well-constructed drama that plays off our own emotions and insecurities as viewers as we empathize with Martha (thanks to the fantastic performance). Much like with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter), Durkin has made a film about sadness and emotional hardship and turned it into a thriller of sorts.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Sean Durkin makes his feature debut with this film, and it is certainly an impactful first feature. I look forward to his next. Composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans add to the anxiety that Durkin creates with their score, which is basically menacing tones. Plus, there is the fantastic song John Hawkes performs in the film (Marcy’s Song) that captures the essence of the film. Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is very good. (Maybe it was just me but) it seemed to get darker as the film progressed, as if using a bleach bypass process. Lipes and Durkin also use varying planes of focus, and sort of a soft focus at times creating an almost angelic look for Martha. Nature plays a big role as well, both as something beautiful and terrifying. It is great work for a relative newcomer. Production designer Chad Keith provides a good naturalistic look to the film that is very fitting as well. The film is built upon the performances of its actors, and they are all very good. Hugh Dancy and Brady Corbet (in a small role) stand out among the smaller supporting roles, while Sarah Paulson is great in her larger supporting role. John Hawkes is brilliant, projecting feelings of menace and love seemingly in the same breath. However, it is Elizabeth Olsen who stands out the most. She gives so much of herself just through her eyes. She has to play a character with such emotional range throughout the film, and she does so capturing the beauty and tragedy perfectly. She completely engages the audience. She is a star in the making.

Summary & score: Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very good drama, that works as a thriller too, featuring a wonderful narrative style, beautiful cinematography and one of the best performances of the year from newcomer Elizabeth Olson. 8/10

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