Martha Marcy May Marlene (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
With its minimalist texture, deeply felt direction and the sounds of folk musician Jackson C. Frank — interpreted beautifully by MVP actor John Hawkes — wafting from a remote Catskills compound, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easy to love and impossible not to admire.
That's also true of the film's breakout star, Elizabeth Olsen, sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Her soul-piercing eyes, bee-stung lips and character choices that seem as if they were dredged from a hidden reservoir within her broken heart, formally announce that her sisters' names won't have to be mentioned alongside hers much longer.
Olsen stars as the title character who goes by any number of alliterative names: Her given name, Martha, is how her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) refers to her when Martha, who has escaped from years of seclusion in a cult led by Hawkes' Patrick, calls asking for immediate help. We learn via flashback that Martha was renamed Marcy May by Patrick. (And Marlene seems to be a generic title of sorts for whoever the compound matriarch is at a given time.)
The film tells Martha's story by cutting back and forth between the relative safety of Lucy and Ted's (Hugh Dancy) cartoonish upper-class opulence and Patrick's survivalist lifestyle, which recruits pretty young girls to keep house for the men, care for the babies, and wait to eat dinner until after the men have finished.
Throughout, we see far more than Martha ever tells. While her odd behavior, withdrawn yet at times uncomfortably open, remains a complete mystery to her sister and brother-in-law, the audience is privy to too much. We understand how individuals like Patrick sucker people in: On the surface, his compound is a place of music, resourcefulness and purpose. In the darkest corners, however, monstrous indoctrination occurs with the crucial assistance of the other women.
Martha is a mighty achievement on the surface, a festival smash boasting a debut actress well on her way to an Oscar nomination. Writer-director Sean Durkin is an unquestionably talented new player on the scene, as well. But the film has major structural problems. To start: The aforementioned mystery doesn't play at all. It's impossible to believe that a couple this modern — the free-jazz/NPR type with a sprawling vacation home — wouldn't instantly escort Martha's sullen ass to psychologists and medical doctors, even taking into account Martha's refusal to talk. That is eventually a conversation, but it's too much of a stretch to think it wouldn't be the first conversation.
Similarly, the flashback device breaks down entirely whenever Martha leaves the compound. We haven't spent nearly enough time with her cult family to identify them outside those confines, and that leads to nearly fatal confusion. During one lengthy stretch, I had no clue whom I was watching, where they were or what they were doing.
An utterly baffling, abrupt ending that answers nothing only compounds the coldness. Since my viewing of the film, I've seen Durkin and his producers attempt to sell these shortcomings as intentional misleads meant to take us inside Martha's scattered mind, but I'm not convinced it wasn't simple sloppiness.
I should add that I've seen many films this year with open endings that fully satisfied me, including Meek's Cutoff and Another Earth. But Martha doesn't require any parlor tricks, not when it features such a rare gift in Olsen — an actress who speaks volumes with barely a sound.