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By Andrew Tracy
If “indie-ness” conveys a certain generic intimation unto itself, some of the most celebrated recent independent films have also strategically adopted broader generic tactics, usually related to violence. As sensation, whether shockingly enacted or tautly withheld, has started to become an ever more important element for independents to attract the necessary attention, this has naturally led to a focus on ever more extreme situations to supply those jolts, from the feudin’ and fightin’ Southern revenge ballad of Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories (2007) to the less estimable Winter’s Bone (2010), where its backwoods Nancy Drew encounters threats of rape, murder, and mutilation. Of course, unfamiliar worlds and familiar worlds made strange—an intense specificity of region, character, tone—have traditionally been independent cinema’s raison d’être; but even with the worthy films in this vein, one begins to suspect that the setting is more pretext than source, less lived reality than ready-made scenario.
The opening minutes of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene nicely encapsulate this bleeding between modes. A series of neutral, uninflected shots take in a vaguely rundown farm, with about a dozen men and women working at various tasks. Apart from the passingly curious fact that all the people are rather young and have no obvious family connection, nothing seems amiss—until the camera moves inside the farmhouse to the evening meal, where the men sit at table while the women wait outside for their turn. At dawn the next morning, one of the young women quietly dresses in the sleeping quarters she evidently shares with all the others and leaves the house, the camera following her outside and then stopping to watch her swiftly cross the road and run into the woods on the other side, as a man’s offscreen voice shouts “Marcy May?” Evading her dimly glimpsed pursuers, the woman reaches a town and hurriedly eats breakfast in a local diner, where she is “caught” by the man (Brady Corbet) who had yelled for her. Sitting down in her booth (and eating her discarded breakfast), he mildly/menacingly asks why she decided to come into town by herself. When she declares that she’ll return by herself later, he unconcernedly consents, leans in to kiss her on the forehead (she shies away), and leaves.
Nicely building in both mystery and anxiety, this first sequence neatly throws the viewer off balance a few times over and stakes out the film’s formalist ground: an alternation between distanced observation and intense subjectivity, milking the disorientation and perceptual shifts of the latter to cast a pall of nameless but omnipresent dread over the former. After making a call from a payphone to a woman who recognizes her as “Martha,” our multi-monikered heroine (Elizabeth Olsen) is picked up by same, who turns out to be her sister Lisa (Sarah Paulson). As the two arrive at a palatial lakeside home that Lisa shares with her architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), the backstory comes thin but fast: Martha has been out of contact with Lisa for almost two years, fleeing from a guardian aunt (the sisters’ parents evidently dead) and apparently running off with a boyfriend to the Catskills. As this awkwardly reunited demi-family starts trying to share the same space, however, Martha’s behaviour—an unwillingness to eat while Ted is at the table, a lack of that social grace that precludes talking about money in the vicinity of people who have it, an unhesitant stripping down to the buff for an afternoon dip in the lake—bespeaks something a tad more amiss than teenage willfulness.
As most reading this will know long before this exegesis in extensis, the farm that Martha fled is the compound of a cult where she has resided for those missing years, ruled over by the laconically charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes), whose paradoxical rhetoric meshes appeals to communality, self-reliance, self-help, and anti-materialism with male supremacy, sexual exploitation, and incitement to violence (apropos intermittent home invasions on the abodes of the well-to-do). Durkin employs matching sound and/or image cues to seamlessly slip from Martha’s present-tense re-acclimatization to the “normal” world back into those lost times, as we see her recruited into the group, casually rechristened “Marcy May” by Patrick, drugged and sodomized as part of her rite of passage, and accepting her role as a “teacher and a leader” by taking another young female recruit in hand.
It’s one of Durkin’s real achievements in these passages that he convincingly conveys the seductiveness of this lifestyle as well as its repulsiveness. Omitting any (organized) religious element to Patrick’s bastardized pseudo-philosophy—an immediate red flag for the Blue State audiences that will largely be the ones seeing this film—Durkin allows the horror to emerge gradually, both dramaturgically and formally. In particular, one expertly measured lateral tracking shot across the farm’s foreyard successively weaves together Patrick’s velvet-gloved but iron-handed dominance, the willingly subordinated but still lively camaraderie of the group’s women, and the introduction of a new blonde-haired sheep to the flock. (The film’s cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who pulls off some admirable effects with darkness and desaturation throughout, warrants a large measure of praise.)
As many a magazine feature will soon remind us, however, the real story here is not the filmmaker but his lead, and the untwinned Olsen is indeed a magnetic presence. Opaque, alert, and intelligent—which renders her regurgitation of the cult’s buzz-worded, circular-reasoned maxims all the more chilling—she makes Martha’s uncontrollable, slow-burn shifts from dour/charming teenageness to verbal and physical violence in the company of the uncomprehending Lisa and Ted unerringly, viscerally effective. And indeed, it’s as a visceral object that Olsen is treated here. The Variety review’s swooning ode to Olsen’s “Maggie Gyllenhaal[-like] soulful ease and saucer eyes” on top of “Angelina Jolie’s husky voice and bee-stung lips” is not purely a matter of a single writer’s proclivities. At first glance far more reg’lar folks than the Maxim-readiness of Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence, Olsen becomes as much a phenomenological as a psychological curiosity for Durkin’s probing camera. Distinct from the dispassionately treated sexual shenanigans at the compound, the film covertly sexualizes Olsen throughout: putting her in bikinis and clinging dresses, offering a slow-motion focus on her ass (sorry, a glass of water in her hand) as she walks through a doorway, even including a makeover scene that, naturally, leads to her most violent outburst.
There’s a retrospectively distasteful “thingness” to the use of Olsen in Martha Marcy that testifies to the cannily pitched externality of the film itself. It’s telling that Durkin forms part of the triadic directing/producing firm Borderline Films with Martha Marcy producer Antonio Campos, whose slick but shallow 2008 Haneke-aper Afterschool (produced by Durkin, and shot by Lipes) became something of a critical hot point a couple of years back. Though Martha Marcy is less overt in its Hanekeanisms than the voyeurism/technology/mass media mash-up of Afterschool—and Durkin also exhibits a far more fluid camera style than Campos’ ostentatiously static, cropped compositions—a crucial aspect of the Austrian’s modernist modus operandi is still operative: a materialistic appraisal of psychological states that eschews explanation for demonstration. What Haneke’s American acolytes miss, however, is that this technique is embedded within a thoroughgoing, Frankfurt Schooled societal critique that (despite His Eminence’s stodgily didactic public pronouncements) retains subtlety and nuance as it moves outwards to implicate a whole web of social habits and relations. Despite Paulson’s sensitive performance, the frisson between the communally indoctrinated Martha and the yuppified Lisa rarely ascends beyond the level of easy caricature—at their first breakfast together Lisa insists on showing Martha photos of their new condo space, and later brings her a kale and ginseng smoothie—while Martha’s anti-materialist outbursts are safely contained within her damaged psychosis.
It’s thus that, despite its well-learned manoeuvres, Martha Marcy May Marlene remains solidly within the genre territory that Haneke takes as a departure point in Le temps de loup or Caché (2005), ultimately having little to say about its charged subjects beyond the sum of its largely well-turned effects. Where the pointedly ambiguous conclusions of the Haneke pair frighteningly open up into the world, the defiant, Dardenne-like hard cut that ends Durkin’s film (which has elicited equal amounts celebration and consternation) simply shuts down the film’s mechanism, suturing us off from real-life horrors for the comforts of a horror flick.