Saturday, December 22, 2012

Catchup review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Marcy May flees the weird cultish commune where she's been living and the pursuit of her by the others ends with a brief ineffectual confrontation in a diner. Free, she's on the payphone outside reversing the charges to her sister who turns up and collects her, carrying her back to a splendid huge lakeside house in the country. Marcy May is really Martha. She's in good hands now.

Martha doesn't tell her sister Lucy anything of the cult she was in, being persistently vague about where she has spent the previous two years. But we see and as we do we quickly get a sense of the structure of this film as it phases between the present life in Lucy's house and the previous one at the cult's farmhouse.

Her life there included constant degradation as the women were subject to the leader Patrick's charismatic divide and rule policy, an initiation involving rape which the women facilitate, some cruel mind games and finally home invasions and worse. They refer to themselves as a family to which anyone with a passing knowledge of the 60s will mentally add the name Manson.

So, good thing she's out. Well, although she began well by appearing chatty and involved in the life of her sister's house and marriage. Soon enough it becomes clear that whatever social skills she had before the cult she now has nothing but a series of guesses and they are all wrong. Her damage is profound, beyond the scope of the care of her increasingly alienated sister. Through a moment of weakness Martha betrays her new position to the cult.

That's as far as I'll go with the plot as, even though it's a slow boiler, there are no go areas for a reviewer beyond this point. But as well drawn as the plot is the worth of this film lies more in the constant psychological commerce taking place between characters in the new life and the past. Martha was so soured by her life in the cult and events they have engineered that she must flee but the normal world beyond the woods has become alien to her, a world of threats and filled shadows.

This is the creepiest film I've seen since Last year's Kill List but without need of the genre jumping virtuosity. Martha... presents one thing only but with such cold deliberation and a surprising grip on the elements of cinema and how they will serve that deliberation that it is unthinkable that, once accepting the premise and its initial development the viewer will not be shaken by the closing moments. This is a horror film, an undeclared horror film as it looks like it's going to be another severe indy piece like Winter's Bone. It starts there but then turns to its own course, going somewhere old by a completely new route. I have seldom witnessed such a sustained exercise of sheer unease, such constant dread as here. The house invasion scene and Marcy May's preparation of the new girl are lighted like Rembrandt paintings but play like real nightmares.

Elizabeth Olsen shows in this piece the sheer power and control that would make her complex turn in Liberal Arts so compelling. Here, her gentle beauty is a curtain of hell. As such she will continue to bear close watching.

PS - I saw this on dvd even though I'd wanted to see it at the cinema on release earlier this year. It came out before my injury but I just didn't get there. Now I wish I had seen it with an audience. I'm definitely getting my own copy.


  1. This was the best film of the year for me. Thanks Peter - was hoping you would do a write up on it! Merry Xmas! - ewan

  2. It has a haunting power, doesn't it? Have you seen Liberal Arts? Elizabeth Olsen (the Olsen sister who got the talent) puts in another extraordinary performance with the same eerie strength.