12/31: Martha Marcy May Marlene
I didn't realize how tense I had gotten, physically, while watching Martha Marcy May Marlene until that last black screen. What an outstanding slow build of "can't look"/"can't look away" — you'd think the inciting incident, Martha's escape from the culty commune and her Marcy May identity, would bring relief, but the apprehension in the viewer only increases. Martha keeps behaving inappropriately, more and more cracks crazing her surface (Elizabeth Olsen's performance is perfect, quiet and thorough). Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, in the only role to date I haven't loathed her in) asks increasingly angry variations on the question, "What the fuck is wrong with you?", but she doesn't know it's the wrong question. The right question is one that most people would never think to ask, and that Martha can't bring herself to point out, and the longer it goes unasked, the more irretrievable the situation gets. And the cult isn't gone; it's just far away. Or maybe it isn't.
I can see finding that lack of resolution frustrating: why do Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) wait so long to consult professionals? Why can't Martha just tell Lucy what happened? The script explains much of that in flashback; Martha witnesses, and occasionally abets, some nasty Manson-ish shit along the way. How and why Martha is receptive to Patrick, the charismatic leader of the cult (John Hawkes, fearless and icky), also becomes clear, mostly in present-time conversations with Lucy, who is guilty and responsible and also lecturing and smug in that particular way of older siblings. "'I am a teacher and a leader'?" she repeats, baffled, and their whole dynamic is in that interaction. Martha had her reasons for seeking out these twisted parental substitutes (since it's a good movie, it's smart enough to give Maria Dizzia something serious to do, and her ghostlike appearance behind a homeowner in one climactic scene popped a "HOOOOOO-LYSHIT" out of me like a Heimlich). She has her reasons for relating to Lucy and Ted on a more resentful level. She has reasons. We just don't know them all.
Writer/director Sean Durkin is in control of his material, but he's not holding on too tight. He knows how much to show us of the cult's silly in-speak, and how much of its sickening "ceremony." (The story behind "Marlene" is typically well done: a bit hard to see, a bit goofy, a bit scary.) He uses ambient sound brilliantly, and often lets the meat of a scene happen off-screen, on the soundtrack, while a character is reacting to it (or not) as the visual. He has to end it where he does, so that's where he ends it.
It's not a perfect feature debut — but it's still on my mind the next day, and Olsen is amazing. As Martha says the most hurtful thing she can find to Lucy, her face is Mobiusing her loathing of Lucy and her loathing of herself into a tangle of profound sadness, and it's onscreen for maybe two seconds. God knows what she drew from in her own life for that, but she's got some serious power.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films cults Elizabeth Olsen Helter Skelter Hugh Dancy John Hawkes Maria Dizzia Martha Marcy May Marlene movies Oscars 2012 Death Race Sarah Paulson Sean Durkin