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Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Helter shelter
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 26, 2011
3.5 3.5 Stars

CULT APPEAL Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) “escapes” the clutches of Patrick (John Hawkes), but is she saved?

As implied by the title of Sean Durkin's coldly confident, insidiously haunting first feature, personal identity can be a fragile thing. Especially when you're not much interested in hanging onto it in the first place. Such is the case with the title runaway (Elizabeth Olsen, in a career-making performance), who is first seen fleeing the sinister hippie commune of Patrick (John Hawkes), a latter-day Charles Manson. But as the creepy atmospheric intricacies prove, escaping a cult is one thing, freeing one's mind something else again.

>> READInterview: Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin <<

Part of the problem is where Martha escapes to. Her estranged, older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) whisks Martha away to the safety of the lakeshore summer house she shares with Ted (Hugh Dancy), her snooty, work-obsessed Brit husband. To say the least, the two sisters have a strained relationship. But it seems mendable, and Olsen and Paulson explore their tender ambivalence, depicting the alienation and bonding of sibling experience with an insight and intimacy not often seen on the screen.

If it was just Lucy she needed to deal with, Martha might have an easier transition. Unfortunately, Martha and her brother-in-law share an instant antipathy. Sullen, shiftless, sometimes simply spaced out, Martha embodies for Ted the qualities he most abhors. Intolerant and crass, Ted personifies the soulless conventionality that Martha rejects. And so she acts out by casually skinny-dipping, or crawling into Lucy and Ted's bed while they are making love, or scoffing at Ted's suggestion that she should think about getting a job. Though snippets of conversation suggest that she ran away from home because of family turmoil, the deeper reasons might be disgust at materialism and a yearning for a spiritual alternative.

In short, Ted's bourgeois taste and values make Patrick's Spartan utopia look like a viable option. That is, until Martha's flashbacks to her previous life take a darker turn. The pastoral idyll of raising crops and sharing everything proves to be a front for patriarchal tyranny, sexual abuse, and worse. It's kind of like the criminal sect of Warren Jeffs without the religious consolation. And as the flashbacks increase in frequency and intensity, it seems a world that Martha never left.

Durkin sustains this suffocating solipsism by never straying from Martha's unreliable point of view, and her recollections merge with the present in a disorienting fugue. A match cut, a voice out of frame, snap Martha from the banal present back to the haunted-house-like dilapidation of the communal home and its primal practices. Not just traumatic memories haunt Martha, but also phone calls and menacing figures. Are they real or figments? They sure are scary, especially given the remote setting, reminiscent of that in Michael Haneke's diabolical Funny Games. And if they are delusions, they are nonetheless terrifying, enticing, and all-consuming.

>> READInterview: Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin <<

Why enticing? Say what you will about Patrick, about his medieval treatment of women, his sociopathic exploitation of human weakness, and his grotesque cruelty to cats, he does possess a certain purity. Played by Hawkes with a seductive detachment, he manipulates his followers through silky assurances and threats, and beneath his New Age bullshit glints the steely certainty of a nihilist conman. Death, he coos, is what we most fear, and fear is what makes us feel alive. Against logic like that, what can the complacent world of conformity offer?

Related: Review: Conan the Barbarian, Review: Red Cliff, Review: The Strip, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Movies, film, cult,  More more >
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