Another stellar debut film emerges from the Festival Circuit in writer/director Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” starring Elizabeth Olsen (The Olsen Twins cooler, younger sister). The cast includes John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know”) and Sarah Paulson (“Deadwood,” “American Gothic”).
The dramatic thriller portrays Martha (Olsen) in the short weeks after fleeing from a cult on a Catskills farm. While finding sanctuary with her yuppie sister, a 2 year disappearance mounts tensions amongst disturbing flashbacks from her experience.
The Denver Film Society presented the Fox Searchlight film with director Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen in person for a Q&A. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” premiered at Sundance in January. The DFS also brought an advanced screening of another 2011 Sundance debut, “Another Earth,” with Brit Marling, who wrote and starred in a 2nd film at Sundance, “Sound of My Voice,” also about a cult.
Waiting in line amongst the anticipation, my screening cohort, Matt Schmieding from Starz, LLC, said “I wanna be disturbed by this movie, to see the truth of cults and what we don’t see in the news. It makes me question how it translates to things like religion and if we are all just slaves to systems of belief. Are the cult followers really victims, or can this film show us that cults are like a microcosm for systems of belief.”
Interestingly enough Sean Durkin pointed out that they never use the word “cult” in the film. It may be John Hawkes’ almost creepy physical emulation to Charles Manson, yet in a dangerously warm, charismatic way. It is also through Martha’s flashbacks that we see all the telltale signs of a cult: a misogynistic patriarch who inducts young women into a commune lifestyle by sexual acts and psychological manipulation.
Elizabeth Olsen’s performance perfectly captures youth that is vulnerable enough to get sucked in, but strong enough to escape. Like Brit Marling, Olsen will be a Sundance darling to keep an eye on. The actress didn’t compile a lot of research into cults, as that would predetermine how one would act according to an assumed victim mentality. Instead, she said, “I just imagined what a group like that could provide to a young woman; how it could fill a void.
That void is something Durkin noted as a “natural desire to belong to something bigger than the self.” The prevalence of this is seen as a number of recent films reflect on the dangers of how that void is filled. As Festival Director at DFS, Britta Erickson asked, “…what’s in the consciousness that we are talking about cults?” The films include “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Sound of My Voice” and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut in “Higher Ground,” also with John Hawkes.
Durkin’s film deals with the inner world of someone wandering between memory, dream and paranoia. Martha asks her sister if she ever can’t tell what’s dream or memory, to which she replies, “No.” The scene inhabits the stark contrast between Martha’s vulnerable free spiritedness and her sister’s materialistic reality. Again, exploring the different ways people fill a void in their life.
Erickson noted a strong collaborative communication in the film’s direction and cinematography. Particularly the film’s last shot, which instantly captures Martha’s psychological state. She sits in the back seat of her sister’s car, not in control of her destiny, looking back at a shadowy car seemingly in pursuit. The last shot abruptly ends, but says all it needs to say, as Durkin expressed, “Any trauma is impossible to escape.”
This is one moment of many that exemplify debut filmmaking that is surprisingly refined in both emotional context and style. The collaborative communication Erickson noted comes from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who Durkin noted for putting “story and character first – above getting the perfect shot.”
There’s much to admire in Durkin’s editing with Zachary Stuart-Pointer. The scenes seamlessly interweave Martha’s emotional limbo in her sister’s foreign lifestyle of affluence with memories of the cult. As always, but particularly to this film, the editing is essential to carrying the story’s complexity through character. As the title of the film reveals, it is a subtly transformative journey as Martha is made into Marcy, emerges as May and ends up as Marlene.
Talking with a trio of film lovers after the Q&A, it proved the film carries the discussion well beyond the end credits. “It provides an interesting insight into a life most of us don’t ever get to see,” said Grace. Discussing the film’s style and tone, Nora said, “Its clear why the film is being called the emotional sister to last year’s ‘Winter’s Bone,’ which also starred John Hawkes.”
This sets the film within a particular cinematic appetite, as Eve said, “I noticed a certain point when some of the audience began to shift their investment in the film and started fidgeting. Those not used to this pace of filmmaking might be better suited to the latest 3D fare.”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” will be released theatrically in October, 2011. This was originally published on www.milehighcinema.com