Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012)

Image: 20th Century Fox

Writer/director Sean Durkin’s debut feature has built up incredible word of mouth since it played at Sundance last year and now it’s finally received a UK release.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) in tears from a payphone. The sisters haven’t seen each other in years, and Lucy takes Martha to her beautiful holiday home in the woods with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). But as Martha’s behaviour grows increasingly inappropriate and erratic, they realise that she’s not telling them the whole story, and Martha remembers her time spent in a commune with the charismatic but dangerous Patrick (John Hawkes).

A film like this depends heavily on its lead and Olsen is superb as Martha, giving a nuanced, emotional performance. The flashback structure allows us to see how Martha has arrived at her current unstable state. When she arrives at the commune, she is relaxed and friendly. But as the darker sides of Patrick and the community are revealed her behaviour around Lucy and Ted becomes unpredictable. From swimming in front of them with no clothes on and being occasionally rude, she begins to lose all sense of boundaries and suffers full-blown panic attacks. She slips in and out of dreams and it gets harder to tell what’s happening when. It’s a fantastic performance that showcases Olsen’s considerable talent.

The conversations between Martha and the brittle but concerned Lucy hint at a difficult childhood but it’s important to note that Martha isn’t the perfect all-American teen before she arrives at the commune. She’s a girl looking for support, guidance, a little rebellion, and purpose, and that’s what Patrick seems to offer. Everyone has a job to do; everybody shares their possessions and responsibilities. And while it’s quickly apparent to us that all is not right, it’s important that Martha is fragile enough to be convinced to stay as long as she does. Durkin has a remarkably steady hand and things progress with a horrifying plausibility.

Olsen aside, Paulson (The Spirit, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and Dancy (The Big C) are excellent as the couple trying to be supportive but reasonable, and Brady Corbet (Funny Games) is effectively threatening as Patrick’s right hand. There’s also a magnetic turn from Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Patrick, whose softly-spoken, encouraging, loving facade masks a dangerous predator.

There are plot holes to be found and there are moments which will prove divisive but this is a carefully-drawn character study with excellent, award-worthy performances from Olsen and Hawkes, and shows that Durkin is a filmmaker to watch.

A superbly unsettling drama and a highly assured debut from Durkin.

4.5/5

JH

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