Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Since its conception in 1981, Sundance has been the launchpad for many of the best independent films. Luckily for Sean Durkin, writer and director of last year’s festival stand-out Martha Marcy May Marlene, he found himself in pole position when his psychological thriller about one woman’s escape from a commune became the talk of Salt Lake City.

Told through parallel, non-linear narratives that represent its central character’s rapidly deteriorating mindset, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen): a beautiful yet deeply troubled woman who escapes the confines of a would-be-idyllic but really rather poisonous commune in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Finding solace with her maternalistic sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha – known within the commune as Marcy May – tries to rebuild her life and overcome the nightmarish memories that plague her soul.

At first, the extent of Martha’s assumed torture isn’t revealed. But, as her behaviour becomes more irrational and psychological state-of-mind worsens, Durkin lets Martha’s past steadily unfold through her own memories, employing some neat camera work and editing tricks to ensure the two timelines, though clearly different, blend into one – a trick that accentuates Martha’s amplifying inability to tell past from present, perception from reality.

While tempting, Durkin does well not to spend too much analysing the ins and outs of the commune, only offering up the bare minimum to give us an understanding of what might’ve led Martha there in the first place (a calming, self-sufficient way of life), and what drove her away (the sinister, passive-aggressive Patrick, played to damning effect by John Hawkes).  The focus remains squarely on Martha, and how even when she’s not in the throes of the commune, but in the safety of her sister’s lake house, she’s still plagued by the nightmares and at war with the curious reckless abandon that gripped her before taking up residency in the commune.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is nothing short of a masterwork of tension-building. The worry and dread that Martha experiences both in her time at the commune and at her sister’s home permeates the entire film, establishing a unflinching terror that adds the right amount of tension and imminent threat of danger to the bewildering proceedings. When the tension does erupt, and the tone slips into thriller territory, Durkin loses his hold on the audience briefly but, thanks in no part to Olsen’s persistent performance as Martha, Jody Lee Lipes’ retrained and keen-eyed cinematography and the complimentary score by duo Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, it’s difficult to chastise Durkin for minor inconsistencies.

For such a demanding, frenetic character, it’s remarkable at how much natural ability Olsen is able to instil in Martha. Showing no sign of weakness or distress, she simply owns Martha’s every being, conveying the raft of emotions buried beneath her dextrous exterior – from the betwixts way she reacts to living outside the commune to the anxiety that fills her every thought – with an astonishing ease and prowess. It’s a testament to the entire cast, not least the central players (Hawkes and Paulson, in particular, do tremendous work), that when focus is taken off Martha, the deep-seeded tautness is preserved and not simply lost.

There’s no shadow of a doubt that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a special kind of film – one that simmers and captivates you, getting under your skin for maximum impact. Strengthened by a consummate performance by Olsen and superbly ill-boding affectation, this is cinema at its finest, and signals the arrival of phenomenal new talent.

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