Tonight in Seattle:  

Martha Marcy May Marlene

{Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in Seattle on Friday, October 28, and is screening at the Landmark Guild 45th theater}

If you ask Sean Durkin the writer/director of Martha Marcy May Marlene (hereafter MMMM) about the film, he's likely to describe it as documenting the psychological recovery of a recently escaped member of a cult. Given it's his film I shouldn't be one to argue. But my perspective is a bit different, viewing it as a suspense-thriller/horror film masquerading as a psychological drama. The fact that both views are equally legitimate is part of the genius of the film.

That combined with the strong performance by Elizabeth Olsen in the lead role of Martha goes a long way towards explaining the accolades MMMM has been earning since Sundance this January. While my partial detachment from the goings on keep me from giving it my highest rating, it's certainly worth checking out.

The film begins in the present with Martha making an early morning escape out of a countryside compound. There are no physical blockers to her exit, neither high walls nor ferocious dogs. There's some pursuit, but by the end it doesn't feel that that full-hearted an effort. Over the course of the film we see how strong a physic barrier existed between Martha and exiting the compound she lived in. As hard as it is for her - escape to town she does. After a pained phone call, she makes her way to her sister's house. The escape is near wordless and sets up the remainder of the story well. With Martha both fearing the group she left, and longing to return.

Free of the cult Martha's adjustment period is tough. Once safely with family she's told to get a good night's sleep and, "You'll be as good as new tomorrow." But it's not going to be that simple. Several hours away from physical peril, that distance is much shorter in her mind. Whether the group poses her a true danger or not is something the film constantly teases with.

On one hand, Martha was confronted by one of the members before leaving and no one stopped her. On the other hand - well, there are the flashbacks showing the manipulation she went through, and some of the less than positive experiences she was part of.

Martha's journey is told both in the present day and in flashback, roughly divided equally between the two periods. Durkin brings a naturalistic style throughout the picture that works well both in the present and flashback. His visual presentation is an integral part of the storytelling. Particularly noteworthy is the smoothness of transitions between flashbacks and current day. They're almost imperceptible at times until you realize the shift of view has changed. It's not easy to describe but it strongly immerses the viewer into Martha's perspective.

Those flashbacks move forward in time as well, demonstrating the cult's indoctrination of Martha. Their methods of manipulative mind fuckery won't be unfamiliar to those who've read a bit on such things (or seen other onscreen depictions). Yet the treatment of the group feels contemporary depicting them as new-age organic/green neo-hippies who under the leadership of charismatically creepy Patrick (John Hawkes) have gone terribly, terribly wrong. We're talking a penchant for ceremonial rape, handguns, an over reliance on guitar picking, and the occasional home invasion. These guys are seriously creepy. Just to propose a rule of thumb - when group accepted rape or overly serious discussions of "cleansing" start it's time to go.

As Martha recovers in her sister and new hubbie's high-end vacation home she's dealing with the traumatic memories. But she's also struggling through a strained relationship with the couple. They love her, but really don't know how to deal with her. Nor how upset to be that she just disappeared without any contact a couple of years back. There's also some unusual behavior exhibited by Martha, by their standards. The moods, the random arguments and the jumping into their bed as they're having sex. Scenes in the present are more positive than those in the past, but there's always the darkness lurking.  Is the cult coming to get her, or are the demons she faces her own? I'll leave it to you to find out. When it's over, I think it's worth noting how Durkin allows pieces to enter the story that support any of several theories of the plot post screening.

None of this would work without the deeply natural feeling performance by Olsen. While there are solid performances throughout, her powers to articulate through her face and body the storms in her mind are what make the film work. With roles prior to 2011 being limited to appearances in projects with her more famous twin sisters this is truly a break out performance. It was striking to meet her the day after the screening. The high energy, bright bubbly and sweet young woman I spoke with couldn't be more different than the role. I truly look forward to her future work. John Hawkes is perfectly cast as the Svengali of the group. The overall cast executes their roles effectively as well.

For all the positives in technical execution and acting skill there are some caveats worth noting.  This is not a film that will satisfy those with a need for unambiguous resolution. I didn't mind that, but relative to the story I have to admit I personally walked out with a bit of a "so what" feeling. It was interesting to watch and observe what happened to Martha.  But at the same time I didn't really feel a sense of affinity for the characters, nor learn something truly new.  Except perhaps the conviction that if a family member shows up after years of silence and acts super-unusual getting them to a shrink is worth prioritizing.  As opposed to say finishing your vacation. 

All in all I do feel MMMM is worth seeing. It certainly raised tension in a way worthy of a solid psychological thriller. At the same time it isn't something I felt I needed to see. But the performances and the visuals raise it a cut above lesser works just trying to tell you about the experience of cult life.

In an interesting side note it's starting to feel like Fox Searchlight is becoming the go-to distributor for interesting cult themed films in 2011. In addition to MMMM they've also snapped up the "other" cult picture from Sundance, Sound of My Voice.  While I don't have a review up on that yet (it's patiently awaiting the release) do make a mental note to catch that when it comes out.  It's sort of fantastic. 

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