Durkin’s film on life in a cult and beyond opts for ambiguity over didactics – opening with a frightened young woman (Olsen) running through the trees. As a poet significantly said, these woods are dark and deep. They are also merely a hiatus between the hell of cult life on a remote farm in upstate New York and the high water of the sister’s lakeside holiday home to which Olsen’s character escapes.
Olsen’s opacity and blandly attractive face are an open book onto which cult leader Patrick (Hawkes) has scratched sexual and emotional obeisance. Following her escape, she finds memories of a depersonalised existence merging with a different kind of isolation. Images of her unselfconsciously naked body bathing in the water reflect the way she’s been hijacked and stripped of social modesty and context, only to be challenged by a new, simply more mainstream set of expectations.
The fact that her brother-in-law is at the point of replicating the cult’s appropriative gaze deepens our awareness of the shifting boundaries between the abnormal and the normal, and the possibly inconclusive choices she faces between the cult’s continued lure and society’s ambivalent alternatives. EL
CON: Arthouse for dummies
First you think director Durkin got himself a copy of Arthouse for Dummies and followed it to the letter. With Martha he ticked every box on the checklist: stylish cinematography replete with soulful close-ups of the tormented young heroine, an elliptical plot punctuated by aesthetic flashbacks, a continual, at first confusing, at length lulling back and forth between now and ‘back then’, ultra slow pace – not the kind that builds tension, excitement or drama, but mere boredom – and the arthouse must-have: an abrupt, adequately inconclusive ending.
Then you find out – surprise, surprise – that the film was developed at the Sundance directors and screenwriters lab, and premiered at Sundance, where it won a prize.
The premise is promising: the psychology of sect followers is an interesting topic. The problem is that 101 minutes later, you’re neither moved nor have you learnt anything.
Of course, we find out she was raped and witnessed a murder (no less!), but the juicier issues, such as why she and the others followed the guru, and why she escaped the sect, are left unexplored.
Much of the film’s buzz was generated by the breakout performance of the “interesting” younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley. Lizzie is a photogenic girl with a wide-eyed face and a great leggie-boobie body (indie fans aren’t averse to a good ass-tit shot), perfect for enigmatic close-ups aimed at expressing sheer forlornness... We were underwhelmed, finding the film neither emotionally nor intellectually satisfying. The non-ending only underscored the essential vacuity of a movie made as a (successful) exercise in style over substance. MY
Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin (USA 2012) with Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy. Starts April 12