REVIEW: Elizabeth Olsen Beguiles in Martha Marcy May Marlene
The opening scene of Sean Durkin's debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene suggests we're in for a big rusty bread pan's worth of rural miserablism, and even though we're not, the yeasty grayness of those early moments is clearly intentional: A group of women in drab dresses and droopy T-shirts go about preparing dinner in a house whose unfinished interior looks either new and hastily erected or ancient and about to fall apart -- it's hard to tell which. A young boy stomps about in a dusty, scrubby yard; a woman sits on the porch working on a crocheted afghan. When dinner's ready, a bunch of men sit down to eat; then they leave the table -- the man who appears to be the leader murmurs something appreciative about the meal -- and the women take their places. Then there's one lone shot of a ton of dirty dishes jumbled into and around the kitchen sink -- there's no question who's going to be scouring them clean. It's as if Amishtown had been taken over by a nicer version of the Manson family.
Or maybe they're not so nice. But what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene so beguiling -- aside from the performance given by its lead actress, Elizabeth Olsen -- is that the pall of creepy groupthink that hovers over that first scene works as a perverse kind of seduction: You want to know more about this place, and about these people, even though you suspect that knowing more may not be a good idea. Even if you think your brain is soap-proof, Durkin succeeds in washing it just a little bit.
The heart, soul and eyes of Martha Marcy May Marlene belong to Olsen's Martha, a young woman who leaves this strange, crazy-cozy household very early in the movie: We see her heading into the woods with just a small pack on her shoulder, though we also hear the squeak of a screen door and a man's voice calling after her. Wherever it is she's running from, she ends up at the Connecticut summer home of her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). The two are clearly estranged, and not just because Martha's been in a cult for a couple of years; from their exchanges, both the early and the late ones, we can see that the two sisters have never been close. Lucy is now married -- a development Martha knew nothing about -- to a vaguely uptight architect or developer (all we really know, or need to know, is that he's some kind of property guy) played by Hugh Dancy. The two welcome her into their luxurious split-level house on the lake, obviously wishing they could unwelcome her.
From that point, Martha's present, in oh-so-safe Connecticut, is intercut with scenes of her past, in that commune somewhere in the Catskills. The place she's left is presided over by a bookish self-proclaimed prophet named Patrick (John Hawkes, looking like Charles Manson as shot by Walker Evans), who has built a pastoral Utopia where the inhabitants live off the land and allegedly love one another unselfishly. The setup works out fabulously for him -- he gets to ritualistically sleep with all the women. But Martha, he claims, is his favorite, and if she stupidly believes it, somehow we do too: She has a solemn, knowing face, with eyes that can melt one minute and pierce the next. She takes to the welcoming pseudowarmth of this new family, even as we can see she's holding herself apart from it just a little bit. When she's first introduced to Patrick, by the savvy-dippy young cult member (played by Louisa Krause) who's taken her under her wing, she compliments him on what he's done with the land, planting vegetable crops and whatnot. "It's as much yours as it is mine," he says with a twinkle of phony generosity in his eyes; she smiles at him a little too demurely, as if to say that she's listening but not buying, at least not yet.
Olsen's performance is restrained but not tentative; you could say the same for the movie around it. Durkin, who also wrote the script, doesn't indulge in lots of shaky camera business to convey, you know, the character's inner turmoil. (The DP here is Jody Lee Lipes.) Even though there's at least some handheld camera work, you have to really look for it: Some camera dude out there is working really hard at keeping the frame steady, and it's almost a subliminal effect -- if Martha is looking for something to hang onto, maybe we are too, though we barely know it.
Durkin is perhaps too obvious in the way he heightens the contrast between Martha's lumpy-oatmeal commune existence and the overpolished gloss of her sister's lifestyle. At one point Martha jumps up from sunbathing with her sister on a classy lakeside dock and leaps into the water completely nude, as she would have done back at the old communal swimmin' hole. Lucy, aghast, hauls her out. "You can't do that here!" she hisses, and I kept wishing the next line would be, "It's Connecticut!" But of course it wasn't -- Durkin isn't going for laughs here, though it's all too easy to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
Still, Paulson and Olsen capture the uneasy electricity of siblings who just can't get along but who nonetheless remain connected. Paulson plays Lucy as uptight but not unwatchably severe: Sometimes she looks at Martha as if she'd just landed from another planet -- or, equally weird, just stepped off a lilypad -- and given the unnerving nature of Olsen's performance, you can see why. One minute she's bracingly direct; the next she seems to be blinking her way through amniotic fluid, like a newborn lamb fighting for life. You don't watch her and think, What a dope she is, having fallen for all that hippie-dippie cult stuff. Instead, you see how the perceived security of that makeshift family would make sense to her, up to a point.
In other words, Durkin doesn't condescend to the character he's written, and in return, Olsen rises to the challenge of that character. At one point, Patrick tries to punish Martha with twisted praise, asserting that she's a lot like him. Minus the cruelty and the craziness, maybe she is: As Martha, Olsen throws off a muted self-assurance that reads as a kind of charisma. We fear for her every minute, and yet for better or worse, we'd follow her anywhere.