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She’s Come Undone

by John Rodat on November 16, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by Sean Durkin

At the conclusion of the final scene of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the woman seated to my left said loudly, “Really?!” In the row ahead of us, another said, “I feel like I’ve been ripped off,” and to that woman’s right yet another said bluntly, “Are you shittin’ me?!”

I highly recommend Martha Marcy May Marlene. Despite—or, rather, because of—the protestations of my theatermates.

Part of their frustration, no doubt, had to do with the billing of Martha as a kind of psychological thriller. The movie is, in fact, thrilling, but it’s a quiet, slow, menacing and uncertain kind of thrill. Many—too many, in my opinion—examples of that genre are really just revenge fantasies. What thrill they contain is in guessing how our victim/unlikely hero will transform his or her weaknesses into the exact tools of vengeance. The conclusion is foregone; and it becomes an exercise in choreography. Martha Marcy May Marlene is by those standards, then, deeply unsatisfying, even disturbing. But it’s a beautifully filmed, recorded and written movie. And excellently acted.

Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famed Olsen Twins) stars as Martha, a young woman recently reunited with her older sister after a two-year absence. Some portion of those two years incommunicado was spent with a cult, led by the Manson-esque Patrick (John Hawkes).

The depiction of the cult, and of Patrick in particular, is delightful (if such a word can be used for such creepiness). Rather than going for full-on raving lunacy, writer-director Sean Durkin and his cast create an idealistic, back-to-the-land clique that could just as easily be the staff of a hip upstate farm-to-table restaurant catering to weekending city folk.

Hawkes is great as the quietly charismatic leader; drawing on Manson, surely (Patrick’s performance of a self-penned and loopy-as-hell song works as a kind of sociopathic in-joke), but not overdoing it. The rest of the cast do a bang-up job radiating the wounded optimism and naivety of runaways and the flinty, terrifying resolve of true believers. Olsen is simply excellent.

Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, as Martha’s yuppie sister and brother-in-law, are very good, as well. They effectively juggle convincing moments of affection, judgment, frustration and self-involvement, creating characters of whom it’s hard to have pat, settled opinions.

Without this talented cast, the chronological ping-pong technique of the movie would have seemed gimmicky. But the actors provide such a rich and compelling emotional reality that the purposely disorienting structure is made vital and necessary. The very thing that, I suspect, some of the other filmgoers disliked provides the animus for the movie: the idea that character is fate, and that character is unstable.