Sunday, 4 March 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene: A stunning portrait of a cult


It's difficult to say much about Martha Marcy May Marlene without spoiling it, so I will just give my plot impression from the first 15 minutes.

A thoughtfully slow independent flick about Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who we see sneaking out of what can only be called a commune in the early morning, before anyone is awake. She makes it to town, where she calls her sister for help, but not before one of the men from the commune confront her. We then switch pace by seeing Martha staying with her sister and her boyfriend in their plus summer house by the lake. Martha is secretive and edgy, and the film is inter-cut between her time with her sister and her time in the commune.

I think that doesn't give away too much, right? 

I have been oddly immersed in the world of cults and fanatics recently (not with real world contact, mind you), and I went in to this film without any clue what it was about. What you see above is about as boiled down as I can get about the first 15 minutes. For most people watching the film with any sort of cultural knowledge, a commune like the one portrayed here is all too reminiscent of one famous 'family', and in that way, Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most thoughtful portrayals of the mindset behind a cult. 

I have always been disappointed by films like Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family (it's an awful film, don't fool yourself), with this film being a tactful and detached view, drawing the viewer in to the world by way of contrasting it with Martha's time with her sister, which, though luxurious, stinks of people putting possession before everything else. You can feel a love for the simplified life, and see why someone who is emotionally unsettled would be drawn to it. Heck, I doubt many people would turn their noses up at it if they didn't have the real-world knowledge of how so many communes end up.

Well acted and, even though very slow, very well paced. We aren't being bombarded with information. It is actually the lack of information shared that builds the tension and conflict. Martha just will not tell her sister why she is afraid, the same as she will not tell the commune why she is unsure. This film doesn't signpost its information for the viewer. It depends on them to read between the lines, to pay attention more to what is not said than spoken. 

It is this absence that is the heart of the film's brilliance, and also the one that will make it a love it or hate it one for film goers. I like a film that lets me place myself as the character, but the usual style is for everything to be telegraphed, so no audience member is left behind, so this film will not be for everyone. I actually found the end a bit hard to stomach and it is only in hindsight that I can enjoy it. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying it's brief, but when I saw it, I knew in my mind what was happening next, but was frustrated I was not given it. Now, I realise that is the genius of it. I was able to imagine what fate lay ahead of me. I was able to become the paranoid Martha.

All in all, it is a film well worth seeing. I wouldn't describe it as one to see before you die, but it is well made and fascinating. It is not often that you actually leave your own skin without realising it.

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