MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, 2011
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a damaged woman haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, who struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing a deranged cult.
Sean Durkin’s debut thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a gripping piece of work about past horrors and present dementia. The emotional tale of a young woman’s recent flight from a Manson-like cult is well crafted in all manners of performance, editing, writing, and directing.
The film follows a modernized yet naturalistic take on the effects of brainwashed adolescents in isolated environments. In ways that are reminiscent of what happened at Spahn Ranch in the late Sixties, John Hawkes, who is fast becoming the Hollywood Go-To guy for rugged mountaineering mad men, plays Patrick, the mind-controlling leader of an abusive cult buried in bedrock of the Catskill Mountains. He controls his obedient flock of lost young girls with mesmerizing intensity that makes you pity their very souls. His powers of coercion and charisma are mind numbing in themselves. It was also probably a good idea to starve them.
By manipulating orgiastic sex among brain-obliterating drug usage (probably flunitrazepam, also known as the Date Rape Drug), he and his methodical reprogramming tactics fulfill the hypnotic Legend of Charles Manson. Be One with the Universe, then Kill Everyone in It.
Elizabeth Olsen is the titular young woman who makes a clean physical break from Patrick’s psychological harness, but ultimately suffers from lurking memories and problems adjusting back to society. People might start introducing Olsen as the younger sister of the global empire that is Mary-Kate and Ashley, but they will not for long. Olsen, acting alum at NYU’s Atlantic Theater Company, gives a stand-up-and-clap performance as the emotionally frail and struggling Marlene. In this sensational performance, she achieves a Maggie Gyllenhaal-like combined talent of raw pain and pure beauty.
It is actually difficult to decide which name to call her character in an overall summary of the movie. When she is under Patrick’s cryptic spell at their secluded Catskills farm, she is Marcy May. Outside in the real world, she is Martha Marlene.
The scenes from her past are elusively captivating and fascinating. It scares the hell out of you to know that this phenomenon actually happens. In fact, it’s happening right now.
Once she snaps from Marcy, Martha flees to her sister Lucy’s place in Connecticut, always looking over her shoulder in fear (or is it temptation?). Like so many other former members of reprogramming religious groups (scholars hate the words “cults”, by the way), she constantly feels alienated from society and lacks interpersonal social skills with her newly reunited sister and agitated brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy).
She guards her unspoken memories with hostility and fear, never telling her sister the truth behind her two-year vanishing act. Her fake story is that she was involved with an abusive boyfriend, which is somewhat true but unquestionably misguiding. As elements of Marcy’s disturbing past resurface to haunt her with a fluid style of interwoven sequences, tensions escalate and incinerate between Martha, Lucy, and Ted.
The film is expertly paced through masterful editing and an intimate point-of-view perspective of Martha Marcy May. Durkin, who wrote the screenplay and won Best Director in the Dramatic Competition section at the Sundance Film Festival, plugs viewers directly into Martha’s sense of disorientation and deteriorating efforts to regain her sanity.
One complaint though: Since people typically join mind-controlling cults in order to fulfill subconscious psychological needs, shouldn’t Martha’s pre-cult back-story be of greater significance to this story? Durkin has stated that he purposely avoided exploring Patrick’s philosophical ideologies and instead sought to examine his social appeal as a leader and teacher. But what pushed an innocent girl like Martha into his world of lies and mind control? And how did Charles Manson succeed in doing the exact same thing forty years ago? And how can this be avoided the next time I go camping in the Catskills?
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