24 September 2011 | DonFishies
Should be retitled "A Star is Born"
Moments after the credits began, I knew Elizabeth Olsen was destined for the Oscar red carpet for her work in Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was a quiet thriller I knew very little about content wise before hand, but knew all about the acclaim it has received since premiering at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year. When it came to the Toronto International Film Festival, it was one of the first films I clamoured for tickets for. And now I know why.
Martha (Olsen) has fled an abusive cult lead by Patrick (John Hawkes). After years of being off-the-grid, she calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up from a bus shelter. Lucy brings her to the lakeside cottage she shares with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), where they are to spend some much needed time away from their lives in the city. But as Martha tries to adjust back to a normal life, she is continually haunted by the memories of her life in the cult.
I was initially underwhelmed walking out of Sean Durkin's debut feature, loving Olsen's performance but not much else. But as the days have gone on, I continually find myself obsessing on every moment of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Despite the backwoods feel and its atmospheric similarities to last year's Best Picture nominee Winter's Bone, this film is just simply unmissable. It is deeply unsettling throughout, and one of the few films that succeed in making the audience deeply uncomfortable. I usually find myself shifting in my seat from boredom. Here, I was shifting just because of how quietly terrified and incredibly disgusted I was with what was going on on-screen. It is a moody piece, but one that sticks with you and scares you more every time you talk and think about it. And it is that feeling, that earnest inner torment that keeps bringing me back and appreciating it more and more.
Durkin brilliantly frames the film in a similar vein to Memento, jumping back and forth between Martha at her sister's cottage in the present and her life in the cult in the past. He weaves in and out of the timelines with care, never once confusing the audience. We simply watch as Martha tries to get on with her life, but keeps finding things that remind her of moments she spent in the cult. He frames the story entirely around her, allowing her unreliability to throw the story into off-putting and disturbing directions. I found myself simply stunned by some of the unbelievable things that occur without warning. Nothing too horrific physically happens, but Durkin makes the implications of what is even more so. More impressive is how no one thing in the film feels insignificant. They all just add up on top of each other magnificently, and help drive the paranoia that plagues Martha from scene to scene, just as much if not more than it does for the audience.
Olsen has appeared in a few films before her work here, but this is an incredibly impressive true debut film for her. Her performance is simply unbelievable and unmissable. Watching her transformation from naïve teenager to paranoid, PTSD victim on-screen is one of the few absolutely amazing moments of film we have had this year. It is made even better by the fact that the film is not even told in sequence, so we are forced to watch her navigate between the depictions with relative ease. Watching her character's arch blossom into something terrifying is something that has become truly rare for such a young, unaccomplished actress. But she makes it work, and forces the audience to never take their eyes off her. She just ups the ante with every scene, and undercuts every actor who she shares the screen with. She is magnetic, and commands the screen with such strength that you would never even pretend to imagine that she is related to the Olsen Twins. Whatever doubts I may have had about the film did not even come close to quashing her compelling and spectacular performance.
Hawkes continues to prove what a remarkable supporting player he is with his work as the leader of the cult. He is always frightening and nightmarish from the very beginning, but seeing him differing forms of sincerity make him a genuinely scary villain. We practically scream at the screen before and after what he puts Martha (or as he calls her, Marcy May) through, and his performance is one of the key reasons why the film is so vividly unsettling. Watching Hawkes playing the guitar and serenading her with a tune he wrote "about her", may go down as one of the most horrific scenes in film history.
Paulson and Dancy do a fairly great job in their thankless roles as Martha's actual family. They help propel the film forward and make Olsen's role all the more fantastic, but I found that they were not given all that much to do outside of helping move the story forward. Paulson does get some very juicy moments, but I think their roles could have been all the better if they had so much more to do. They just seemed like mere plot devices more so than anything else.
While there is still something I still cannot quite describe that holds Martha Marcy May Marlene back from being the best film of the year, I cannot stop thinking about how powerful and great it really is. It is an ambiguous film that stays with you long after you leave the theatre and one that packs one of the single best performances of the year. This is an incredible directorial debut for Durkin, and an even better one for Olsen. Missing this film when it hits theatres is quite simply unacceptable.