Monday, October 31, 2011

A Teacher and a Leader

Creepy, unnerving, well acted, and just plain ole beautifully made, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a must-see movie that you won't soon forget. That's mostly because of the subtle, heartfelt, and heartbreaking performance by Elizabeth Olsen (who has the unfortunate luck — for now, anyway — to be best known as Ashley and Mary-Kate's younger sister). It's the same kind of performance that made Carey Mulligan a star in An Education two years ago. Thanks largely, but not completely, to that fine work, MMMM is one of the year's best movies.

In MMMM, Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who runs away from a cult in the Catskills after two years, and goes to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) in Connecticut. Over the course of the movie, we flash back to see how Martha — renamed Marcy May by the menacing and seductive leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) — found love and acceptance in the cult but eventually had to break free. (Whenever an outsider tries to contact a resident, the women identify themselves as "Marlene," thus the fourth name of the title.) Writer/director Sean Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes skillfully turn this inviting setting into a nightmarish compound, a place no woman should ever be near. It's an abusive culture where having sex with Patrick is called a "cleansing," and where women are subservient and lower-class citizens.

In Connecticut, Martha keeps her thoughts and memories to herself, thinking she can deprogram herself. This is easier said than done, though; Martha's inner turmoil and painful memories are difficult to overcome. As a result, Martha never quite gels with her family, and Lucy feels increasingly challenged by the sister she barely knows anymore. Martha remains paranoid that Patrick and his minions will eventually catch up with her, and her fears make it nearly impossible for her to move on.

What makes the film so good, other than Olsen's performance, is that Durkin knows how to exercise restraint. He makes great use of silence in order to ratchet up the psychological thrills and haunting tone. All that needs to be said, in both words and music, is right there in Olsen's face. This results in a very personal and intimate film that you'll be watching closely. It doesn't take much to see how Martha or any of the other women could be sucked in to this cult life, and we feel every pain point that Martha feels along the way. It's barely a few minutes into the film when she calls her sister and asks to be picked up, and God damn it if you don't feel scared and helpless too, even though you don't know very much about the girl or what she's been through. Hawkes, too, is excellent. His cover of "Marcy's Song" will give you shivers.

Story notes that raise questions have unsettling answers later on, and the whole thing ends on a note that will leave you completely uncomfortable. You won't be able to look away from Martha Marcy May Marlene, and you'll be talking about it for a long time after the lights come up. I'm giving this one an A–.



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