Staff Reviews: Martha Marcy May Marlene by Fran Jaffa, Front of House Assistant

Did you know Mary-Kate-and-Ashley, of early 90’s TV fame, are two of six siblings? Six. So there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of them is going to have talent, turns out it’s this one. Elizabeth Olsen is two years their junior and I promise that will be the last time I mention all three in the same sentence because she’s probably sick of hearing herself referred to as their sister. Plus she completely blows them out of the water with this fantastic performance as the damaged and deranged escapee who can lay claim, in part, to all four names of the tongue-twisting title.

Martha is her actual name, just to clear up any confusion, Marcy-May is the name given to her by commune boss Patrick (John Hawkes), and Marlene is the false name given to anyone who calls up the commune for any reason.

Personally I found this film hugely disturbing. It didn’t help I’m already half in love with John Hawkes after his scary performance as kind-hearted bad guy Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, a film with which this one has a surprising amount in common. Both, obviously, feature John Hawkes’ skinny frame and his uncanny ability to switch from friendly to menacing without actually moving his face, both focus on familial ties and the bonds between people who live slightly isolated from society and both feature an absolutely stunning female lead, the fact that Jennifer Lawrence didn’t win every award going including best soundtrack is practically criminal. Interestingly, when Jennifer Lawrence auditioned for the part of Ree in Winter’s Bone, the casting director was initially worried she was “too beautiful” for the role. I wonder if Elizabeth Olsen had a similar problem with Martha or if, like Lawrence, her beauty adds something to the character (in this case a perceived vulnerability and an assumption, easily made by her sister, that she would want to show it off.)

In an interview at last year’s Sundance festival John Hawkes claims he doesn’t think of his character Patrick as a “cult-leader”, and that he tried to forget everything he knew or had heard about cults and just play him as a human being. Which is unfortunate as this film trots out pretty much every culty stereotype going. Hippy morals, almost Amish-style life, subservient women, creepy guitar-playing godlike older man and a bit of “sexual cleansing” thrown in for good measure. The only thing missing is some good old-fashioned religious fervour and it is this absence that gives it more the feel of a commune than a cult and allows it to be that little bit more seductive to the lost young souls that wander into it.

Although this film isn’t exactly a revelation in its presentation of cults, what it deals with more effectively is what happens afterwards. Martha struggles to reconcile her fractured memories and dreams with her current luxurious surroundings, leading to confrontations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) whose beautiful lakeside holiday home she’s staying in. Paulson and Dancy are good as this recently married yuppie couple, they have hideous schmoozy parties and shrug off Martha’s questions as to why they have such an enormous place all to themselves, especially considering they don’t actually live there. I did find myself wondering at the slightly one-dimensional feel of their characters though, they seem to be there simply to highlight the difference between the initial caring, familial feel of the commune and the conform-or-else attitude and lack of concern her actual flesh and blood seem to feel towards her. There’s an awful scene in which Lucy’s attempt at sisterly bonding leaves Martha feeling exposed and results in an attack of the paranoia that follows her throughout the film and could possibly, we are encouraged to wonder, follow her for the rest of her life.

The dense woodland of the Catskill Mountains of New York really give this film a claustrophobic feel, very few “outside” people are seen. Even in the safe haven of her sister’s home, the woods gather menacingly on the edges of the lake and we are only given a very few glimpses of urbanity. This adds to the ominous feeling that Martha will somehow be drawn back into the world she’s so desperate to escape from, whether by force or by choice.

With some impressive performances all round, a very clever, natural script and some terrifyingly accurate psychology, this is definitely a film that will have you looking over your shoulder all the way home, not to mention instil a lifelong suspicion of men with guitars.

Fran works at Phoenix Square as a Front of House Assistant and has a thoroughly useful degree in Drama. Her interests aside from films are mainly tea and cake. Occasionally biscuits.

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