Thursday, November 10, 2011
Martha Marcy May Marlene
There’s a fine line between finding out enough about a film to decide whether or not you want to see it and hearing so much about what other people thought of it that you wind up with your mind part of the way made up before you even sit down in the auditorium. That nearly happened with me and this film, because I heard from most of the people who watched it before we opened it that it wasn’t all that good. On the one hand, that gave me a bit of hope, because I often tend to like the quirky indie pictures that other people find irritating or boring; but on the other hand, the opinions were pretty much negative or blandly equivocal across the board. That doesn’t bother me when it comes from the general public, which tends to like bad movies and not even understand good ones; but our staff is several notches more evolved than the general public when it comes to film appreciation, which made their solid dislike of the picture a bit worrisome.
That didn’t kill my desire to see the film, but it did color what I thought of probably the first third or so of it when I watched it last Friday night after I got off work. Things that I like when other directors do them got under my skin here. This is director Sean Durkin’s first feature, and early on it felt very much like a first feature. There were a lot of shots in the beginning of a stationary camera that simply observed what happened in the frame, not moving when the focal point of the shot moved off screen. That’s classic arthouse technique—just sit there and watch while I capture art, rather than chase it all over the place like a spastic cat. Kelly Reichardt is practically an expert at composing a shot and letting that shot speak for itself; but then, she was a professional photographer before she started making films, so she had that kind of training. I’m having a spot of trouble finding out what else Durkin has done, other than a couple of shorts—well, apart from film school. He obviously went to film school, because he’s clearly showing us all the artsy things that he learned there.
But really, that’s just picking at nits. It isn’t that his shots aren’t well composed, it’s just that I was ready to be disappointed by what I was about to watch; and it didn’t help that it looked a lot like he was trying to replicate something that a director I admire very much is very adept at herself. Durkin’s temporal cross-cuts weren’t bad either—and probably would have seemed pretty clever and well executed if I hadn’t already seen them done, and in much the same way, by Derek Cianfrance in Blue Valentine; but the thing with Cianfrance’s cuts in the earlier film is that his were much more jarring—you didn’t realize that he had skipped backward or forward in time until something happened in the scene that was completely out of sync with what took place in the previous scene. By contrast, Durkin foreshadows most of his cuts; and while this serves the higher purpose of informing his characters, it feels like another chapter out of the film school textbook.
I will grant you, however, that it’s an advanced chapter out of the textbook; and it’s to his credit that he wants to make sure the audience follows the progression of the narrative closely. This is a character-driven film that relies on Durkin’s ability (as both writer and director) to impart information gradually. If the foreshadowing feels a little bit ham-handed at times—and it does—that, too, is in the service of a higher purpose, allowing Durkin to make direct connections between Martha’s past and present, which helps the audience to get into Martha’s head—not at all an organized place to be.
The title of the film comprises the three names the main character is given at various points in the story. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman with a troubled present predicated entirely on her troubled past. Some of the people I talked to before I saw the film said that nothing much happens over the course of the nearly two hours it goes on. To an extent, this is true; but what that analysis misses is that the whole thrust of the narrative is simply to get to know this girl, with very little offered up in the way of direct information. It reminded me of a card game I played a few times in college, called Mr. Mao. As the story went, the point of the game was to learn the rules. (You were also supposed to get rid of all the cards in your hand, but you had to learn how to do that by playing the game and learning the rules. It’s definitely the kind of thing that could get annoying, but I thought it was fascinating.)
It’s entirely possible that this particular narrative strategy, and the story it serves, are more film school tricks—but here I’m not so sure. It’s important for the audience to connect with the main character, and Durkin offers up an interesting challenge by making getting to know the main character the whole point of the film. It’s an ambitious feat for a first-time director, and that Durkin is ultimately able to pull it off redeems his reliance on standard tropes to get the thing off the ground.
And since the point of the film is to get to know its main character, it’s a little bit hard to say too much about the story itself without giving away that which makes the film a joy to watch. Olsen, aged twenty-two, has the voice and bearing of someone much older and wiser. At some point in her life, it seems that Martha joined up with a cult, led by the charismatic, but intensely creepy, Patrick (John Hawkes), who christens her Marcy May, because he must act as both creator and Christ figure to the women he keeps. That she is part of this cult is established early on; the specifics of her joining are never revealed, though the process by which anyone can be assimilated is hinted at later; and the reasons she might have had for abandoning her previous life and joining the cult are also hinted at later.
She escapes the cult—the only major issue I had with the film was how easy this seemed to be for her to accomplish—and winds up staying with her sister Lucy and brother-in-law Ted at their summer place in rural Connecticut. One of my favorite lines in the film comes the day after Martha escapes, when she is talking to her sister and she asks how far away they are. The sister says, “From what?” and Martha replies, “From yesterday.” It’s an easy leap from the literal to the figurative, but Olsen’s delivery is haunting. Martha spends the next several days trying to adjust to life on the outside without actually addressing what happened to her while she was “away,” the excuse she gives to her sister for having been out of touch for two years.
The balance of the film reveals things that happened to Martha while she was in the cult, a series of flashbacks that Durkin places in chronological order to show Martha’s gradual indoctrination into the cult—the process by which she goes from Martha to Marcy May; and as Marcy May climbs the ranks of the women on Patrick’s farm, the flashbacks reveal a series of events that should make the audience wonder whether everything is as it seems.
As a family drama, it doesn’t work as well as it might because the characters of Lucy and Ted are stubbornly one-dimensional. For most of the film, they seem almost willfully ignorant of how troubled Martha is, of how desperately she needs serious professional help to deal with what has happened to her. In this respect, Martha is an enabler—she fails to reveal exactly what happened to her. She makes only passing references to the time she has spent “away,” thereby neatly folding the episode into what is gradually revealed to be a lingering problem of how little Lucy was there for her after the passing of their mother.
If some of Durkin’s visual tricks early in the film are too clever by half, he more than makes up for it with how cleverly he employs ambiguity to propel the narrative. Is Martha so traumatized that she is unable to speak about what has happened to her—or is there something more sinister at play, something that forces her not to speak about what happened to her? Durkin uses this ambiguity throughout to ratchet up the suspense as the story unfolds, and ultimately he is able to craft an effective thriller out of what might have been merely a mildly interesting family drama. By weaving the two together, he demonstrates a far greater mastery of screenwriting than he does of direction. (And yet he is also able to coax this remarkable performance from Olsen, which does, in fact, demonstrate some directing chops—though it must be said that he gets a big boost here from Olsen, who is extremely gifted.)
Perhaps the strongest element of the film is just how satisfying and effective this ambiguity is, a feat that has flummoxed greater directors than Durkin. The Coen brothers could speak from personal experience, having crafted a series of ambiguities, toward the end of their version of No Country for Old Men, that were made much clearer in Cormac McCarthy’s source novel of the same name—to the consternation of many a viewer and reviewer; but Durkin does something so subtle that I am afraid it will be missed, and the damnable misery of it is that I just can’t bring myself to explain exactly how he does it. To do so would ruin the ending. When I mentioned the angle that I am thinking of to Dione at work, after we had both seen the film, she thought it was interesting, and said that it had not crossed her mind either while she was watching the film or when she talked about it with folks afterward; and she’s usually pretty good about reading movies like that, to pick up the little things that often get missed.
And this is definitely a film that begs a close reading. It’s also one of those that I’m going to be rooting for when Oscar nominations come out—and, if it gets some, a month later when the awards are handed out. This is the kind of difficult, challenging film that Oscar should pay attention to and reward—but seldom does. That this is the first major film for both Olsen and Durkin makes the achievement all the more impressive.