Monday, October 24, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Dir. Sean Durkin

3.5 out of 5

Memories are like especially pernicious chalkboard lessons staining the tabula rasa of the human mind in writer-director Sean Durkin's debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene. The slate in question is Elizabeth Olsen, a troubled young woman who spends the film's opening moments fleeing an upstate New York commune for the relative safety of a Connecticut lake house owned by her concerned, judgmental sister (Sarah Paulson) and her well-to-do husband (Hugh Dancy). Olsen is gripped by melancholy and confusion during her re-assimilation with a paranoia stoked by constant flashbacks to her recent life as a member of a Manson Family-style cult lorded over by a vulpine John Hawkes. It becomes clear that this group which promises cleansing and nirvana is rotten at its core, couching sinister ideals in meaningless spiritual psychobabble. What Durkin is trying to suggest is that a vulnerable mind, once poisoned, finds it easier to succumb than to seek an antidote.

Olsen's recovery is complicated by her family's misguided attempts at amateur deprogramming. The affectations of their yuppified detox program - protein bars, boating lessons, summer dresses - are as curious as the idiosyncrasies of the cult. Of course, it's much more than waiting for the men to finish before having her own supper that's unsettled her. More of a dead-ringer for Vera Farmiga than her famous older sisters, Olsen's taut facial expressions and ungainly movements convey the trauma that she cannot bring herself to describe. ("What the hell is wrong with you?" is her sister's common, unhelpful response to her lack of communication.) She gives a fantastic and fearless performance in a claustrophobic role that would have swallowed up so many other ingenues. Hawkes is also great and chilling in a riff on his similarly unrepentant, quietly menacing character in last year's Winter's Bone.

Durkin does his best to distinguish Martha from the typical indie miserabilia that creeps into theaters just as temperatures begin to drop. Pointed, jarring cuts juxtapose Olsen's increasingly untenable life at the neo-hippie compound with the emotional prison constructed by the oblivious Paulson. Shot in half-light, around corners, and squeezed between doorframes, the heroine seems to sink from reality as she slips deeper into the drama replaying inside her head. Locked out of Olsen's mind, however, Paulson and Darcy feel like convenient scapegoats. Their behavior strains the credulity of the film; it's hard to believe that they would accept Olsen's "fleeing a bad boyfriend" alibi at face value even after she interrupts their lovemaking by casually slipping into their bed. And while the ending comes across as an abrupt gotcha! from Durkin, he's made a mostly honest film here, sliding between past and present almost as imperceptibly as Olsen transitions between emotions and identities (the title is a reference to all the pieces of her fractured self-image), learning with mounting dread and desperation that there are parts of ourselves that, try as we might, we simply can't erase.

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