There are films that entertain. There are films that captivate. There are films that inform. There are films that resonate emotionally. There are films that terrify.
Then, there are films that cause a psychological shift deep within. They are films that may very well do everything listed above, but they also somehow cause a shifting of the soul.
They aren't always perfect films. In fact, sometimes they are tremendously flawed.
Mysterious Skin. Pumpkin. The Woodsman. The War Zone.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a soul-shifting film. While Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a perfect film, it is a film that is perfect for what it needs to be. The film has already attracted its share of naysayers, both among its audiences and among the nation's film critics. This is not surprising, because films like Martha Marcy May Marlene aren't generally intended for mass consumption. One need only look at 2010's Oscar-nominated Rabbit Hole to realize that, with only rare exceptions, American audiences tend to ignore emotionally challenging and intellectually complex films unless they include mega-action sequences to help soften their impact.
There's nothing particularly soft about Martha Marcy May Marlene, though the film itself exists in an almost dreamlike state of being that is almost relentlessly uncomfortable and disorienting. The film opens as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, the little known younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) is calling her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, The Spirit) from a payphone after having escape from a rural farmhouse where she has lived for the past couple years under the increasingly abusive influence of a charismatic Manson-style leader named Patrick (John Hawkes, Winter's Bone). Patrick doesn't initially seem like a cult leader, at least not the type of cult leader we Americans have come to expect in the aftermath of Jim Jones, David Koresh and others. In fact, the film hints very little at the idea of being this a religion-centered cult but, rather, more of a retro-styled "free love" type commune where she lives and "loves" with other men and women under the strict control of Patrick's guitar-strummin' persona.
As Martha escapes the commune and attempts to re-integrate herself into the world by staying with her more emotionally sterile sister and her equally sterile husband (Hugh Dancy, Adam & Shooting Dogs), the only thing that becomes clear is that Martha may be more damaged by her experience at the commune than anyone realizes.
While Elizabeth Olsen is clearly the lesser known sibling of the Olsen family, her performance here is a break-out performance that will most assuredly be recognized with an Oscar nomination and, at least at this point in 2011, has to be considered one of the award's frontrunners. Olsen doesn't just play Martha ... she becomes her. Olsen's performance here is one of the most courageous in recent memory, somewhat reminiscent of Kidman's performance from Rabbit Hole last year but even more impactful, vulnerable and transcendent. Even contemplating Olsen's performance in this moment is bringing tears to my eyes, Olsen maintaining a remarkably expressive yet controlled physical performance that powerfully reveals a young woman who'd clearly lost control of her body and was now trying desperately to retake that control in whatever ways possible. Olsen's Martha is a wounded child and a fractured young woman, and watching her teeter on the edge of normalcy, sanity and hope is both exhausting and mesmerizing.
First-time feature film director Sean Durkin captured the Directing Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, while the film itself was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. While the film will unquestionably pick up a couple Oscar nominations, it should do even better at the more relevant Independent Spirit Awards.
In addition to Olsen's mesmerizing performance, John Hawkes turns in yet another award-worthy performance as the haunting and unforgettable Patrick. Hawkes, who received an Oscar nomination last year for Winter's Bone, has placed himself at the top of the list for the nation's indie actors with this performance along with his stand-out work in Winter's Bone and Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. The master stroke of Hawkes' performance here is that he humanizes a man whose behavior is frequently inhumane. Despite the obvious abusiveness of his behavior, it's also easy to understand how the frequently low-key and charismatic man has managed to hold sway over this commune of common folk for so long.
If you've ever felt out of place, unloved, unsure of your place in the world or uncertain of what's real, then Martha Marcy May Marlene will likely resonate with you deeply. If you're a cult survivor, religious or not, it may very well be a film you'd best not witness alone as the film unquestionably has scene after scene that can easily be described as trigger scenes. Durkin, with a directorial maturity far beyond that of a first-time helmer, clearly wasn't content to just tell Martha's story. Durkin clearly wants the audience to get a sense of what it's like to actually be Martha, an experience that is simultaneously jarring, frightening, overwhelming and magical.
Sarah Paulson is remarkable, as well, as Martha's elder sister. It's clear that the two have never been particularly close, with the emotionally distant Lucy clearly wanting to "fix" Martha and have her move on down the road so that she can go back to her emotionally detached existence with her husband, played convincingly by Hugh Dancy. The two are quite the opposite of Martha, avoiding anything resembling emotions in favor of financial wealth at a beach home on the Connecticut coast. As seemingly idyllic as is this upper class setting, it's apparent that Martha is as uncomfortable and out of place in this setting as she was on the commune ... in fact, maybe even moreso.
Because Durkin, who also wrote the script, chooses to focus much of the film on Martha's potentially delusional thought patterns, the film itself often plays out as a psychological fantasy rather than a strictly linear storyline. It can be uncomfortably disjointed initially, but without question the approach works as the words, images and ambiguity stay with you long after the film has ended.
D.P. Jody Lee Lipes lenses the film perfectly, capturing the film's dream-like quality without ever compromising its stark reality. Original music from Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurrians heightens the film's emotional impact while also adding immensely to the sensory experience. In fact, virtually every aspect of the film's production is stellar and complements both the written word and the ensemble cast.
Among the supporting players, Louisa Krause is particularly memorable as Zoe, a young woman who seems like a breath of fresh air at the commune but who quickly becomes much more complex. Brady Corbet, an underrated actor who was in the marvelous Mysterious Skin, does a fine job here.
Martha Marcy May Marlene won't be a film that will resonate for everyone and, in fact, there will be those who choose to view it solely upon the basis of its reputation and will likely walk out of the theatre muttering "That was crap." It's not for everyone, but those embrace it will embrace it wholly and passionately and, if those who don't embrace it are being honest, the performances alone make this one of the best films of 2011 and one of the first true "must see" films of the 2011 awards season.