Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Unsound Logic: Martha Marcy May Marlene

(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)
             A woman walks away from a peaceful farmhouse. Wood is chopped there. Soup is eaten in silence around a wooden table. No breeze affects the foliage. She looks behind her and crosses the lightly paved road. She runs in to a path in the woods. A man calls out to her; “Marcy! Marcy May!” He pursues her in to the woods.
            She hides under a tree on a slight overhang. Two people run past her.
            She makes it in to a small town. She sits at a diner eating. A light haired man comes in. He sits and asks her what she thinks she’s doing. Says everybody else is worried about her. Marcy May says she wanted to go in to town. The man asks he why alone. She doesn’t have an answer. He eats some of her food, without quite getting her permission. He leaves her there.
            Outside, Marcy May picks up a pay phone.
            If you have not seen Martha Marcy May Marlene, then this scene may sound perfectly mysterious, and it may view that way also. To spoil it just a bit; Marcy May’s real name is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), and she has been living with a rural cult headed by her “boyfriend” Patrick for two years. The person she calls on the pay phone is her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who has not seen her in at least as long. Lucy picks her up and takes her back to the Connecticut lake house of her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). We learn that their Mother died and their Father was unreliable. We learn that Martha has a history of trouble, and may have suffered from mental instability before she joined the cult. As for the present, Connecticut isn’t helping. Martha can’t control herself. She thinks she’s still in the woods, a happy servant to a man who is, essentially, a pagan and a narcissist. And more.
            But if you don’t know any of that already, then you can watch that opening scene up to the point when Martha, with the look of a young girl who has been spanked, picks up the phone. There is already a certain unsound logic to the film. Why didn’t the runners in the woods see her, when she was barely hidden? Why did the young man, Watts (Brady Corbett), not forcibly take her back to the cult? Given what knowledge we gain of the cult, this is exactly what one of the men would have done.
(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)

            Or skip a few scenes. Many scenes. What kind of sister takes her younger sister, traumatized, wearing filthy clothes, missing for two years, home and never to a hospital for various tests, then to a psychiatrist as a preventative measure at the least? How lucid is Martha? One scene, she’s swimming naked. Another she’s sleeping on the kitchen floor and wetting her dress. In others, she’s criticizing her sister’s past shortcomings, critiquing capitalism, talking about memories before the cult. Is this woman a victimized outsider of the Dreyer--Von Trier line, or a mentally ill woman trapped in a situation even more disorienting to the viewer?
            Now here is writer-director Sean Durkin’s conflict: he seems to know all the answers, but he has designed his film to deny each one. First he sets his film up as a fractured memory narrative, and then he resets it as a psychiatric mystery. Then he resets it again as a sentimental narrative about the broad meaning of family, and then he decides on a bourgeois expose, before settling in the final scenes on a paranoid chase movie. Durkin has made the mistake of a movie in which the central character embodies so many concepts, so many screenwriting-class character motivations and secrets that it becomes impossible for Ms. Olsen to truly deliver. Which she doesn’t. This isn’t to say she’s incompetent; at least her character holds our sympathy most of the time. But she is surrounded by nincompoops; her sister, her sister’s husband, and her cult, all of whom are sketched as ambiguously troubled people who dance around her larger troubles. If the protagonist is mad, and there is nobody in the “sane” world who acts practical or the “mad” world who acts enthrallingly nuts, then what are we left with?
            Answer: John Hawkes. As Patrick, the charismatic, pathological leader of the cult, Hawkes is surely the strongest thread in the film, and his performance takes on an eerie presence that affects even the mechanics of the film. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes calms down when he’s in the frame; the camera shows him sitting on a wooden chair with a dinky acoustic guitar, playing a song called ‘Marcy’s Song’ while the commune watches him from the shade of a barn. The sound gets streamlined as he shows the girls how to use a gun and kill cats, the lighting decisive and shadowy as he sits on the steps watching an orgy. John Hawkes may be on his way to creating a film persona; a slightly rabid, but not inarticulate guy who looks quite comfortable in his woodsy psychosis. It was the same type of persona he played in the fantastic Winter’s Bone, and it’s got surprising flexibility.
(Martha Marcy May Marlene/2011)

            But the film has too much flexibility. And this is the problem with many recent films to come out of Sundance with a blaze of hype behind them. They are hyped for their concepts rather than their craft. They are cleanly shot ideas with no internal logic, and so much polished narrative material that is too much for the average twenty-something actor/actress getting their big break. By the time we get to the end of Martha Marcy May Marlene, we’ve seen at least several conclusions, and the undeniable truth, suggested by the title, that Martha’s identity is scrambled. She must choose Martha Marcy May or Marlene; the film chooses all of them at once, calls them all legitimate, and goes stark raving mad.