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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Martha Marcy May Marlene", identity, menace, fear

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A very tough one to rate. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a very disturbing film with a unique haunting quality. Would I recommend to everyone? No way. It's extremely sensitive subject, the awkward structure and its ambiguity makes it an option just for some audiences. Which is sad, as it's a movie that sticks in your head. Even if you would prefer not to.  

The movie starts with Martha escaping from a sect/cult/very peculiar commune, being welcomed by her sister Lucy. But "reintegration" to "normal" society is not going to be easy. Living with her sister and brother-in-law becomes a very tense and frightening period for her. The clash between her family and the "other family", where she lived for about two years builds a growing scenario of anxietyparanoia and identity crisis

Debuting director and writer Sean Durkin builds an astonishingly absorbing character study with this film. Focused in Martha, he moves the film back and forth, mixing Martha's memories/flashbacks of her time within the cult with her "new life" with Lucy. Avoiding the scabrous possibilities such a subject could have had, the transitions are smart, serving lucidly the director's purpose of confronting two defining "ways of living", and the devastating confusion it provokes on Martha, her mental health being seriously affected. Durkin delivers, being quite an impressive achievement for a first film.

Of course, if "Martha Marcy May Marlene" succeeds, is thanks to the spectacular work of Elizabeth Olsen as Martha. In an striking performance (sort of ridiculous she wasn't even nominated for an Oscar), more so if you consider she's is also debuting, she's capable of showing the many sides her extremely complex has: from innocence to an extreme fragility, from isolation to a fierce and silent composure. Stunning job that makes the audience suffer her pain and feel the (real, imaginary?) menace that don't go away.  

Having praised the film up to this point, it is fair also to express the various concerns I have, being them the reason that makes this film a good and very special movie, but far from the masterpiece it had the potential to be. My strongest concern is the exacerbated, and deliberated use of the ellipsis as a resource to build ambiguity/shock the viewer of this film. I'm not referring to its abrupt ending (works as a disturbing, more terrifying climax) but to the lack of information on Martha's past, family relations, entrance on the cult. I'm the biggest defender of the rule "show it, don't say it" but "Martha Marcy May Marlene" don't do any of them. It's hard for us to understand why Lucy (Sarah Paulson) behaves the way she does with her sister without any input on their common past (just glimpses of it). It's great when a film leaves us with questions, but this film has too many.

The other concern, quite linked to the previous one, is the lack of development of almost any other character on the film. I say almost, because Patrick, the leader of the cult, is another puzzling, scary and darkly engaging character, performed with brilliance by John Hawkes, an equally brilliant actor (same comment about nominations is valid for him). But aside from that, the rest of the cast is quite flat. Could be understandable in the case of the sect members (although some scenes, a couple of them in particular, are quite confusing as a result) due their annihilation of personalities, but again, not with Lucy and her husband. 

But anyway, despite its flaws, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a very remarkable, disturbing and powerful film

SCORE: 6,75/10

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