Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene

I went into Martha Marcy Mae Marlene with no knowledge of the film whatsoever, except the fact that it played to rave reviews at Sundance, Elizabeth Olsen was in it and that she's related to some other famous Olsens. Funny enough, a disaster related to showing up fifteen minutes early for a screening of The Descendants and there only being front row seats left led us to this little film.

Martha is the story of a woman who has escaped from a cult and has taken refuge with her uptight sister and her sister's well-to-d0 husband. Throughout the film, little things trigger her memories of the cult and the sometimes awful things that occurred there. She's always scared that the cult leader (played by John Hawkes) will find out to where she's escaped and come for her, which causes her to not only distrust the family she's staying with, but also herself. The title makes sense as you watch her progression through the cult ranks and through her interactions with her sister and brother-in-law.

The film leaves many unresolved questions, like how she wound up in the cult in the first place, and the ending (which, of course, I don't want to reveal) leaves you wondering as well. Honestly, I felt a little cheated by the ending, not because there wasn't a definitive answer, but because what they did explore in the final scene felt undeveloped.

This is certainly a film that requires time and patience. Watching the first of it, if you don't know what to expect, it's easy to get confused quickly. I know I did, which I know caused me to miss some small details. But now that you've read this, hopefully that won't be a problem for you.

What I noticed is that I never really liked the lead character. I just watched her and appreciated the fear and uneasiness she was going through. But I never felt an attachment to her or ever found myself rooting for her. Despite that, Elizabeth Olsen does a great job at showing restraint when she needs to and emotion when she needs to. She's getting a little bit of Oscar buzz, but I don't think we'll see her contending for Best Actress. John Hawkes, as the leader of the Amish-like cult, does a great job playing the cool, calm, collected, yet scary as hell cult leader. He knows how to keep his followers in check with a soothing voice and a "if you cross me, that's the end of you" implication to everything he says. Watching him in Winter's Bone and now this, I'm convinced he should be to go-to-guy for a grizzled, sinister patriarchal character.

A particular scene that really made me gasp was a shot of Hawkes's women gardening out in the yard. The camera pans over a wide shot of each of them tending to sort part of the yard. In the distance, you can see ominous storm clouds in the sky, and as the camera stops panning, you can see two white crosses in the background (obviously implying that people are buried under those crosses). It's at this point you realize that, for at least some of these women, there may not be a happy ending.

If you decide to see this, be ready to pay close attention and have some lingering questions when you're done. But really, that's a good thing, right?

Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I saw this film as a free preview screening, but I'd been wanting to see it anyway and had planned to shell out the bucks on opening weekend when I got my nifty little email telling me I had preview tickets waiting for me. I was incredibly moved by this little film but unfortunately the preview audience I saw it with HATED it. People talked loudly throughout (early on, one elderly woman was describing the action on the screen to her husband, who apparently was hard of hearing, until someone yelled "SHUT THE F**K UP!" and she did); some people in front of me said "Stuuuupid!" and "Booooring" really loudly several times during the quieter sections. Several people walked out at various points in the film, and after the final scene there were loud 'boos' all over the theater, which I've never seen in this town before. I overheard one guy remark as he was leaving, "The only good parts were when she was naked," and several others exited with loud disgust while I was trying to watch the credits. I guess for some people a free movie is a free movie is a free movie, and they feel like they can do whatever they want when no one is paying for their ticket--it was such a rare display of rudeness and incompetence in this usually very arts-savvy city.

    That said, I think my enjoyment of the film (well, "enjoyment" is probably not the right word...perhaps 'appreciation' is closer to the truth) had little to do with the defiance I felt toward my fellow patrons and more to do with a specific interest of mine in the mental health field that I thought was depicted quite brilliantly. (As a side note, are they still patrons if they don't pay? I guess not. Hmmm.) I thought the film was the most effective and realistic portrait of the experience of someone with PTSD that I've ever seen, period. This movie completely gets it right, and it made me realize how so many other depictions of people going through PTSD (or who SHOULD be going through it based on their character's experiences) get it totally wrong. It's not this loud, rushing, hallucinogenic nightmare with dreamlike imagery and slow-motion strobe effects; instead it's a quiet, incredibly personal gnawing in the brain. It's much more about prompted actions than reactions. Most movies about characters with PTSD show them fighting their demons and melting down and practically shaking their fists and trying to claw their eyes out. Instead, in real life, sufferers rarely reach those moments of catharsis. There may be times of high emotion, like when Martha and her sister were on the stairs, but they aren't exorcisms of the demons; instead they are the embedded demons just peeking out to twist and play for awhile before slipping back into their mental burrows. This movie is an amazing portrait of that cyclical, emotionally neutral process and it is one I will remember and value for a long time as part of my collection of well-made films about characters with realistically depicted mental illnesses.

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