Friday, December 2, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

I have always defended cynicism, even outright despair, as a valid form of creative expression from those who feel that all art must affirm. One cannot tell an artist how to feel, and to deny very real human emotions from the artistic equation, or to insist that those emotions be subsumed into a more palatable conclusion, is naïve nonsense. But Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin's feature debut, displays such tawdry, put-upon nihilism that I would have preferred the most reality-blind Hollywood cheese to its technically immaculate wallowing.

The title refers to three names the protagonist uses at different times over the course of the film, "Marcy May" joining two of the words into one rustic sobriquet. Her real name is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a title she gets back upon escaping a cult in upstate New York and contacting her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Despite sporting a bruised ear and audibly trembling when she calls Lucy for help, Martha does not get taken to a hospital, the police, or even a therapist. Instead, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), bring Martha back to their vacation home in Connecticut where they behave as if everything is now instantly back to normal. But as flashbacks illuminate what happened to the younger sister, the belligerent attitudes of all three in the present become not merely grating but noxious, and Martha Marcy May Marlene quickly establishes itself as a movie in which things only ever get worse, not for dark comedy but plodding, hopelessly tedious stabs at psychological drama.

It should be said, however, that Durkin has a not inconsiderable skill with a camera. Weaving together the two time lines with match cuts so harmonic they become less counterpoints than one undulating line, Durkin at least knows what he's talking about when it comes to cults. With each new revelation, we see not only the horrors inflicted upon Martha and the other women of Patrick's (a terrifying John Hawkes) clan but how they become complicit in the crimes inflicted upon the next batch of recruits initiated into the "family." Likewise, Martha's inability to shake her dependence on Patrick continues to wreak mental havoc as Ted and Lucy selfishly fail to understand the gravity of the situation.

Hawkes' Patrick hangs over the whole film, even in his absence. Gathering runaways and emotionally vulnerable youths to his hidden farm, Hawkes lures his captives with the promise of fixing them, of helping them beat addictions, to find the love they never felt as children. But Hawkes, who looks as haggard and lethal as he did in last year's Winter's Bone, always carries a trace of ulterior motives made increasingly plain as he remolds these people into his slaves. His playful act of giving pet names to all who join becomes merely his first step of eliminating each member's old identity, cutting that person off from thoughts of one's past to ensure that Patrick becomes his or her whole world. The effect is so complete that even Martha, who fled him in terror, continues to spout his teachings and worldview to her bewildered (and increasingly impatient) sister.

But the same structure that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene such a striking technical achievement also turns its potential insight into such complex psychological scars by parceling out information as if leaving a trail of bread crumbs, an approach clearly meant to draw out the audience but so shamelessly forward about it that I broke quickly and often from the narrative. Rather than build tension, Durkin's narrative just throws an endless number of intended gut punches designed to jolt the crowd. Furthermore, by framing the story this way, the writer-director puts all of the emphasis on the revelations themselves, not their after-effects. The moments of understanding and depth he brings to Martha's brainwashing eventually give way to a narrative too in love with its own curveballs.

Yet Durkin still clearly thinks he's delving into his characters, generating a severe pacing problem between its perceived character analysis and its actual adherence to thriller structures. This leaves the film dramatically inert, robbing some of the later, crucial events of both their immediacy and their ripple effect. The characters stagnate as well, with Lucy and Ted continuing to act so self-involved that one almost welcomes the danger they flirt with by not rushing to get Martha help. By the same token, Martha falls into such a static trap of sloth and cruelty that the unending string of new horrors unearthed by the flashbacks begin to resemble a desperate attempt to keep the audience engaged with this locked-up character and to keep sympathizing with her terrible behavior.

Perhaps Durkin feels as if his dead air is evocative, creating atmosphere by virtue of its lethargy. This view would certainly be backed up by the ridiculous ending, which some have inexplicably called ambiguous because it is not explicit, despite there being only one clear outcome for the final shot. The cast give it their all, particularly Olsen, Paulson and Hawkes, but Durkin cares not to use his clever structuring or his ominously washed-out aesthetic to delve into the issues he broaches but merely to writhe around in all the evils and pain that hit these characters. It is a wasted opportunity, one that turns an initially gripping and mysterious view of a traumatized person's attempts to reintegrate into normal society into a plot-heavy bore. But like Olsen, who lines her beautiful, youthful face with prematurely aging furrows of terror and insurmountable rewiring, Durkin does display enough talent with his feature debut to warrant keeping a tab on his future endeavors. Let us just hope they work better than this hollow exercise.

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