Martha Marcy May Marlene. (15.)
Directed by Sean Durkins.
Starring Elisabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, John Hawkes and Louisa Krause. 101 mins.
Watching this tale about a girl who escapes from a backwater cult but has problems reconnecting with the real world isn’t an entirely satisfactory experience, which is exactly as intended. This remote, opaque drama never gives it to you straight but it surely does give it to you. The atmosphere of menace and foreboding it summons up doesn’t quite grip you in the pit of your stomach but it gets close enough.
Though technically a directorial debut, it doesn’t feel like one. Durkins previously produced After School for colleague Antonio Campos (who returns the favour here) and they seem to be two men united by a shared vision: to push the conventions of narrative cinema to their limits. Shot are either static or handheld; the visual focus of the scene is often not the narrative one; images are framed with heads cut off and the sequencing is so jumbled that you wonder if some scenes are even part of the story.
The first scene shows a young girl (Olsen) sneaking out past floors filled with sleeping bodies in the early morning light. As she disappears into the woodland the alarm is raised and you know she isn’t going to make it. Only she does, all the way to the beautiful home her sister (Paulson) shares with her new husband (Dancy.)
The film then flits seamlessly back and forth between her struggles to adapt to normal society and her time on the commune under the charismatic leadership of Patrick (Hawkes.) On a number of occasions the film will pull the rug from under you by showing that a scene you thought was taken from one part of the story is actually from quite another. For example we assume a scene where Martha goes skinny dipping in a lake is taken from her time on the commune until the camera pulls back and you can see her sister sitting on the shoreline. And it’s all done so slyly it could almost pass for unintentional.
The film contains two great performances. Olsen bears a physical resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal and looks to have most of her talent too. Hawkes might reasonably have expected his to be a main part, but the film leaves him on the periphery to startling effect.
Of course, many will find the film as irritating and precious as its title but if you can stick with it, it is close to remarkable.