Martha Marcy May Marlene opens with a scene of almost serene calm and ends on a knife edge. Where most mainstream thrillers might drag things out for an extra five minutes, Sean Durkin’s film is short and sharp, and leaves more questions than answers. But then, ‘mainstream thriller’ may be the most inappropriate label to apply to Martha.
In fact, applying any kind of label is a tricky one. The best I can do here is to say that where most thrillers start nice and end nasty, Martha is all the more impressive for bridging those extremes within almost every scene. And here’s the other good bit: Durkin, as both director and screenwriter, is a filmmaker loath to spell things out for us.
So Martha the film and Martha the character remain constantly fascinating, because it’s hard to know where either is heading. All we get are flashes of what’s happened, like memories suddenly sparked to life – Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha has escaped from a cult-like commune led by John Hawkes’ Patrick and taken shelter with her sister and her wealthy architect husband. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
Durkin gives us pieces of the puzzle in fleeting moments, recollections by Martha of her time in the commune that arrive suddenly and without warning. Martha‘s narrative works like a fractured psyche, making us feel just as vulnerable as Martha, never sure if we’re safe or certain of where we are.
It’s a tension that Durkin refuses to release. He doesn’t give us a way out, or any cathartic explosion of violence to pop the balloon. You know those Hollywood thrillers that end with a flourish of violence? A triumph of good over evil, of meek protagonist victorious over menacing antagonist? Not here.
To its credit, Martha doesn’t let us leave with a spring in our step, knowing that all’s right in the cinematic world. Rebecca De Mornay doesn’t get impaled on a garden fence, Kurt Russell doesn’t get one over on Ray Liotta, Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine don’t live happily ever after in their nice house.
Martha is filled with unsettling moments, making it far from the ideal date movie. Yet that’s also what makes it a film you shouldn’t wait to come out on DVD. In the cinema, where there’s no pause button or living room light to break the spell – it grips you and never lets go.
Durkin deserves much of the praise. He frames the movie in suffocating close ups and eerie long shots, and knows how to make the most of a soundtrack by using it sparingly. But he’s aided by incredible performances from Olsen and Hawkes, both of whom should be fielding questions right about now on how much of an honour it is to be recognised by the Academy.
That’s understandable, perhaps. Kevin Bacon’s incredible turn in The Woodsman went unheralded for all the same reasons – there are no histrionics, no ticks, no fanfare. Hawkes plays his sinister cult leader with a surface charm that makes you fear what must be underneath.
And it’s what’s underneath Martha Marcy May Marlene that will stay with you. Sure, it looks like another one of those Sundance Festival films that might be hard work to sit through. It is just that, but for all the right reasons.