LFF 2011: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE review

When it’s done well, there’s fewer genres I enjoy more than the psychological thriller. I love in particular the sub-genre of movies where reality (and therefore the narrative of the film) is always treacherous due to the mental state of the protagonist/narrator slowly unraveling. If you’re after a pithy label for these movies, I suppose ‘headfuck’ is as good as anything.

After a heyday in the seventies with Polanski’s Apartment trilogy of REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT, the genre underwent a renaissance towards the end of the nineties with films like AMERICAN PSYCHO, FIGHT CLUB and PI, before coming to prominence again with the huge critical and commercial success of BLACK SWAN earlier this year.

At the LFF this year we have two high-profile headfucks in TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – I haven’t yet seen TAKE SHELTER (I’m currently trying to pull strings to make a screening) but I have seen the excellent if irritatingly titled MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and there’s no doubt it’s one of the most interesting and powerful films screening this year.

In the film’s chilly, wordless opening scenes, we see a rural household that is home to dozens of people, and we watch as they go about their business. Right from the off there are clues that something is up – the men all eat together, and only once they have finished and left the dining room are the women allowed to eat. In the small hours of the morning, a young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes the house and runs off into the woods, as a voice calls out “Marcy May!” behind her. Eventually she makes contact with her only remaining family, sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives in a grandiose beachfront Connecticut home with an irritable property developer (Hugh Dancy).

We learn that the girl’s real name is Martha, and that she has been estranged from her sister for over two years. We flash back and forth between her new home in Conneticut, where she begins to display increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior as her fragile psychological state worsens, and her increasingly dark and unpleasant memories of the communal home.

It’s interesting how both TAKE SHELTER and MARLENE are set in pastoral middle America – I think this is ultimately a more disturbing film than something like BLACK SWAN (a film I’m a huge fan of) precisely because the psychological horror is presented in such a mundane, grounded context. It’s the David Lynch effect – the foreboding sense that the niceties of small-town USA are plastering over the cracks of a sordid, perverted reality.

There are some genuinely horrible moments in MMMM, but it’s never exploitative, or gratutitous. The camera avoids much in the way of explicit material, and huge amount is implied and suggested, which is ultimately a great deal more horrifying. There’s no operatics, literal or otherwise; no American Werewolf-esque transformation scenes, or softly lit lesbian sex – just a precise, totally credible account of the depths of mental abuse that can be inflicted on a young girl by a charismatic sociopath.

That charismatic sociopath is Patrick, played by the brilliant John Hawkes, fast becoming one of my favourite actors currently working. Here his role is like Teardrop, his incredible character from WINTER’S BONE, pulled inside out – whereas Teardrop was a sensitive soul buried deep within a prickly, violent exterior, in MARLENE he’s…well, you can probably figure it out. In any event he’s just as memorable and effective as he was in that previous, Oscar-nominated role, and continues to prove that he has more charisma in one of his ridiculously bulbous arm veins than most A-listers have in their whole bodies. All I’m saying is that if they ever make an Iggy Pop biopic he’s plainly the only candidate.

As great as Hawkes is this will be a film remembered for two debuts. The first is English-American writer-director Sean Durkin, who has produced a remarkably accomplished film for a debut feature. It’s lyrical yet intense, visually stunning, and crammed with incidental visual clues and details that I’m positive will reward further viewings. He demonstrates a remarkable eye for composition, and a grasp of claustrophobic tension and suspense that would suggest he’s been doing this for years. His storytelling style is occasionally abstruse and difficult – in particular, some of the ending scenes are almost Haneke-like in their sadistic refusal to provide any traditional sense of climax – but also (like Haneke) thought-provoking, intelligent and unsettling. Durkin is certainly a talent to watch.

Undoubtedly another talent to watch is Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of teen favourites Mary Kate and Ashley. While she has appeared in films before as a child star, this is her coming out party as a ‘serious’ actress, and it is absolutely stunning. It’s a demanding role – due to Martha’s borderline personality disorder she’s required to shift between a variety of personas, whilst still providing the human center of the film, something she does impeccably. At various stages in the film ‘Martha’ is alternately vampish, when meeting Patrick for the first time; child-like, when being taking out for a boat ride; and intense and calculating, when firing pointed and personal barbs at her bewildered sister. Yet all the while her sad eyes belie the paranoia and confusion raging inside of her. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it will be an outright scandal if she isn’t rewarded with an Oscar nomination at the very least.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE will likely prove too cold and enigmatic for many – the title alone will scare a lot of people away. However, for those of us who can handle it, it’s a technically brilliant, superbly performed and perfectly executed movie. Headfucks don’t come much better than this.

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