Elizabeth Olsen gives an amazing lead performance in the suspenseful
and well-crafted Martha Marcy May Marlene.
I have been hearing about Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin) for some time, and now that I've seen it, I am happy to report that in most ways it lives up to its positive hype. It is a dramatic thriller about a young woman (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a cult to live with her sister and husband at their vacation home in Connecticut. The film cuts back and forth between Martha's interactions with her family in the present and her experiences being indoctrinated into a patriarchal, hippie-esque cult two years earlier.
As an exploration of the mindset of cult members and of the insidious techniques used by cult leaders to ensure new members' loyalty, this is a creepily fascinating and insightful film. The back-and-forth structure, cutting between Martha's present and past, is extremely effective, revealing narrative information to the viewer piecemeal and conveying Martha's fractured, subjective, disoriented state with chilling force.
Martha converses with Patrick (John Hawkes).
Where I feel the film stumbles a little -- and now I must warn you of both upcoming SPOILERS and the possibility of an intrusive personal bias -- is when it starts following the real-life Manson Family "playbook" too closely. I am quite familiar with Vincent Bugliosi's book Helter Skelter (Norton, 1974) and the 1976 made-for-TV movie adaptation of the same name, so once Patrick and his followers start creeping rich peoples' houses, Martha Marcy May Marlene loses much of its spontaneity (and hence its dramatic edge) for me because I know all too well where it's heading. Any viewer even passingly familiar with the activities of the Manson family, particularly the Tate and LaBianca crimes, will have no difficulty seeing exactly where this film is going after a certain point.
Thus, after a couple key scenes alerted be to this intertextual "borrow," instead of remaining firmly on the edge of my seat, I started wondering: Is this Patrick guy just a Charles Manson copycat? Is that really all he is?
Sadly, the film's answer seems to be "yes." And in my view, this film doesn't need to raid Manson territory to be chilling. The early indoctrination sequences at the cult's secluded farm are incredibly spooky and disturbing in their own right, and could have maintained the film's unnerving suspense by means of the psychosexual power games already at play, without heading onto full-blown Helter Skelter-land. Alas, the choice to do the latter causes the film to lose some of its grip on the viewer -- or at least me -- because it makes one wonder if Manson-emulation was the Martha cult's whole purpose (and if so, what IS the purpose? WHY does Patrick just want to do the same stuff Manson did back in the sixties?). Or was it that Sean Durkin, the film's writer/director, simply could not think of anything else for Patrick and his followers to be up to?
John Hawkes is terrific as cult leader Patrick . . .
. . . yet his character becomes a bit too overtly Manson-like and less interesting to me
around the time of the scene depicted here.
In any case, that is my main disappointment with this very well-shot, grippingly acted, and expertly crafted thriller. And since that disappointment originates with my extensive knowledge of the real-life Manson case -- I am a true crime fan and have read Helter Skelter at least three times -- it may not affect the experiences of less Manson-savvy viewers.
Otherwise, I have only praise for this tightly wrought and thematically provocative movie. The lighting and cinematography are stellar throughout, and the locations are beautiful and well-chosen. Martha Marcy May Marlene features a large dose of handheld camera work, which tends to be overused these days, yet this is the kind of film -- intimate, subjective, and creepily frightening -- where that style of cinematography really works well.
My only other critique, and it is particular to one scene only, regards the film's soundtrack: while it did not bother me in any other scenes, I found the musical score during Martha's party freakout scene to be distractingly loud and tonally heavy handed. Thumbs down there.
But thumbs up overall. I highly recommend this disturbing psychological thriller to my readers, and I only hope my spoilers will not spoil the impact this well-made movie has upon you.
The chillingly effective final shot (which is also a minute-plus long take)
of Martha Marcy May Marlene.