When I saw the emaciated, tired, dehydrated John Hawkes in last year’s fantastic Winter’s Bone, I knew that I’d quickly see him again in a role that truly let him inhabit what Bone only hinted at. He’s got a spark in his eyes that requires attention, even sympathy. Even when the rest of him is angular and cold. He’s got a mean face and a cracked voice. In Winter’s Bone, all it takes is one long look for him to make his points. We can just look at his eyes and know what he’s seen.
Sean Durkin, the writer and director of the haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, must have seen what I saw in Hawkes last year. Only, instead of playing a guilty man trying to go clean, Hawkes has been cast as the charismatic leader of a small commune in the Catskill mountains.
Sadly, Hawkes’ character, Patrick, has been relegated to a supporting role.
This is not to say that the film is ruined by this fact, but I am confident that a film about Patrick would be infinitely watchable. Hawkes gives the best performance in the movie, and one of the best performances of the year, and there is, somewhere deep down, a pain in my heart that he isn’t given more screen time here to work with. But lucky for us, Elizabeth Olsen is also in the movie.
Playing the titular Martha (sometimes Marcy May, sometimes Marlene) is Olsen, giving a totally out-of-nowhere debut performance that somehow carries the enormous weight of Durkin’s unusual and disturbing screenplay, jumping between the confused and emotionally exhausted Martha and the confident leader that is Marcy May. The chronology of the film is jumbled, not unlike 21 Grams or Pulp Fiction, and sometimes the audience is unsure of which timeline Martha is in until late in the scene.
Martha Marcy May Marlene centers around a young woman, Martha, who is accepted into a commune in the Catskills and is slowly brainwashed into believing the increasingly dangerous rules and philosophies professed by the commune’s leader, a much older, enigmatic man named Patrick.
A parallel plot runs through the film in which Martha has run away from the commune and is taking shelter at her sister’s lake house in Connecticut. Martha, in these lake house scenes, is tormented by her memories of the commune, where she took the name Marcy May and witnessed countless disturbing and horrifying actions by her “family.”
The film seamlessly cuts between the two stories, linking them with visual motifs, music cues, and lines of dialogue. Before long, it becomes clear that Durkin wants to confuse us the way Martha is confused by her memories. “Do you ever wonder if something is a dream or a memory?” Martha asks her sister one night after a particularly haunting flashback. For the audience, we’re thinking the same thing. These flashbacks are often followed by Martha waking up confused, scared, and looking for a way to escape.
The cinematography is elegant and fluid, much like the camerawork of Roger Deakins or Harris Savides, and the up-close, raw handheld moments in the otherwise perfectly framed shots punctuate the film with bursts of intensity. Durkin is a visualist who seems capable of creating the imagery we’ve seen from filmmakers like Andrew Dominik or Ingmar Bergman–ghostly visions that stay with us long after the lights have come back on. His ability as a writer may not be quite on par with his excellent eye, but his screenwriting chops are definitely there. The film’s dialogue is mostly solid, but the real pleasure in Martha is its interesting use of story structure and juxtaposition. To give away the transitions and cues he uses would be a disservice to those of you who wish to see the movie for yourselves. So I’ll just say this–the transitions are magic.
The highlights of the film are the great performances from Hawkes and Olsen, the beautiful cinematography, and the interesting structure Durkin has given the entire work. These highlights are definitely worth the price of admission.
What the film lacks is convincing motivations for the supporting characters, and what I think is a much-needed focus on the backstory between Martha and her sister’s relationship. I could also do with more Patrick. Hawkes’ performance is too good for us to get as few scenes with him as we do.