Chicago Film Fest Diary – ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Grade: B+

My second day at the Chicago International Film festival was quite the experience. I arrived early, to make sure I got a closer seat – as the previous night seeing Melancholia I was in the last row. I sat down with my bucket of Sprite (just way too much to drink but a large is only 50 cents more than a medium so why not) and listened to the conversations around me. 2 women around 50 sitting behind me were in deep conversation about the films they had seen so far in the festival. One seemed to be a real film buff while the other seemed to have come to “meet the stars” and add to her autograph collection which she boasted quite highly about. She had the autograph of an actor who played “pizza boy” in an episode of Seinfeld. I am unsure whether or not she knew that no “famous folk” would be attend today’s screening of Martha Marcy May Marlene, perhaps she would be dissapointed. The other woman seemed a bit more educated in the festival and their talk veered into last nights showing of Melancholia (which I reviewed very favorably on the site). Here are some highlights of their conversation (I have named them Festival Goer and Autograph seeker):

Autograph Seeker: Did you see that movie Melancholia last night?
Festival Goer: I sure did. What did you think?
AS: Well, to me it was just about people looking up at the sky staring at nothing with blank looks on their face.
FG: Really? You didn’t like it?
AS: No, I must have missed something – it was very boring.
FG: Well I really found it quite intruiging. It left me a little confused but I thought it was a brilliant looking and well acted film.
AS: Well I was 45 minutes late.
FG: Oh.
AS: The girl from Interview with the Vampire really grew up huh?
FG: Yes, she was really wonderful in the movie, I think its the best thing I’ve seen her in.
AS: I guess. But what was the point of it all?
FG: Well I think the Kirsten Dunst character had super powers – and she destroyed the world.

It was at this point that I had to tune out everything involved with that conversation. I had lost all hope in both of these women. And as much as I loved Melancholia I was ready to be swept up into the world of Martha Marcy May Marlene. I had been reading about this film for a while now. The buzz for its leading lady, Elizabeth Olsen, is very loud and her name has popped up on many bloggers and critics best actress nomination lists. Added on top of that it boasts an intruiging trailer and also stars John Hawkes whom I was very impressed with last year in Winter’s Bone. I also have a very strange infatuation with cults, I’ve read pretty much every book on the Manson case, as well as books on Koresh and Warren Jeffs the polygamist leader. The subject interests me very much – and I have never been impressed with a film adaptation of a true to life cult story. So when grabbing my tickets for the festival, this film ranked pretty high on my list.

Oddly enough it is just opening at another theatre in Chicago – The Landmark – and is having a wider release here. But I decided to pay the extra bucks to view the movie with a crowd who would really appreciate it (sans maybe the two women behind me). I snuggled into my seat – enjoyed overhearing some excellent conversations from various others around me – and eagerly awaited the start of the film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of Martha (or Marcy May or Marlene depending on who you ask). The movie begins as we are introduced to this commune in the middle of nowhere. This is a world where 8-10 women and children share 1 small room.  No one has their own possessions, rather they share everything. If the clothes fit, they are yours. At first it seems its not unlike a hippie commune you may have read about or lived through in the 60’s. However in the opening scene we see the women make the food, set the table and leave while the men sit down and eat the majority of it – when they are full the women come in a finish whats left. It becomes clear that this isn’t the free loving society represented in other films such as Woodstock. The comparisons to the Charles Manson family are actually very strong – and as the film goes on, become much stronger.

We open with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) gathering all of her belongings (which fit into a very small knapsack) and walking out of the front door – across a street – and into the woods where she climbs a hill and begins to frantically run for her life. And there is reason, as a male member of the commune has spotted her and begins to chase after her. Martha makes her way out of the woods and to a bus stop where she calls her sister to come and pick her up. It’s been years since her sister (the fantastic Sarah Paulson) has spoken to her and she rushes out to bring her back to her lake house. Martha’s story is that she was living with a boyfriend in the Catskills and lost her cell phone – likely story huh. The rest of the film plays out in a series of present day and flashback scenes – these are entwined and edited perfectly. We see Martha trying to adjust to this new lifestyle (which is not far away from the lifestyles of the rich and famous when compared to her communal living). For example she see’s no need for a bathing suit when she can just wear her birthday suit like normal on the commune. She is not accustomed to 3 meals a day, as commune life told her there was no point to eat until the sun goes does .. your body will just adjust to it.

The more the audience learns of Martha’s past in the commune we see that it is in fact a cult. First of all, Martha’s name is changed day 1. The leader of the commune, Patrick, takes one look at Martha and decides she looks more like a Marcy May. It is decided – this is her new name. Following that (I suppose this may be a spoiler, so if you’d like skip down to the next paragraph) Marcy May is now pulled deeper into the cult by spending her first night with Patrick. He comes into her room as she is sleeping, and forces himself upon her. We learn that this is nothing new and that it has happened to every woman living on the property. All of the small children we see running around are Patricks. Whereas the newly formed Marcy May is in pain and emotionally distraught over being raped, she is comforted by the fact that “This is a good thing!”. All of the women long to relive the first time Patrick gave them the gift of his body. Let’s just say these flashbacks go from bad to worse. We certainly understand why Marcy May fled the commune and fled back to being Martha. (One may wonder why she didn’t do it sooner). The crux of the film though is how does Marcy May turn back into Martha.

I will leave out the Marlene aspect out of the review as I think it was a particularly interesting point of the film.

On the surface you may think this film is just another run-of-the-mill “creepy cult brainwashes teenage beauty” film – however the parts of Martha Marcy May Marlene that are most intriguing take place outside of the cult as Martha is transitioning into her ‘freedom’. The relationship between Martha and her sister Lucy is the films most interesting. The two couldn’t be more different. Whereas Martha wandered off to live on a commune, Lucy has married a wealthy businessman Ted (played by Hugh Dancy) and spends her weekends away from the city at a lake house many of us couldn’t afford as our sole home – much less a weekend one. Martha is used to sharing her clothing with 10 other women, whereas Lucy is dressed to the nines while she sits on the patio reading. The marvelous thing about Sarah Paulson’s performance of Ruth is that she never comes off as arrogant – even though she seems to be living the life most dream of. She takes the role of supporting her sister to heart, opening her home up to her. So as she opens up her castle to her sister, Martha is stuck trying to adapt to this high maintence lifestyle while trying to escape the memories of the cult that has exploited her under the guise of ‘loving relationships’. As the film continues on these two plot points begin to mix together, stirring Martha into a state of depression and fear. The question that is presented to the audience is: Can Martha ever really escape what has happened to her? As you may suspect, the cult is not going to let their Marcy May get away so easily.

The film belongs to Elizabeth Olsen. It is, as some of the posters state, a “Star Is Born Performance”. It is one that comes as quite an unexpected surprise as Ms. Olsen is the sister to the multi-millionaire twins Mary Kate and Ashley. Although Mary Kate has attempted, to various degress of success a film career, Elizabeth makes a debut here that is as powerful as you’ll find. The role is a dream for any actor – as it is in effect 3 roles wrapped into one as Olsen plays Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene. She is so strikingly good in the film, that each and every scene is even better than the one previous to it. She starts out at the top of the class and ends as valedictorian. Much like last years breakout performance by Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, I expect similar love to be spread Ms. Olsens way.

This is not to say the remainder of the cast isn’t great; they are. John Hawkes (also from Winter’s Bone) is downright eerie as Patrick the cult leader. He actually is the centerpiece of the films best scene. He sits down all of the followers and begins to strum from his guitar a song he has written for Marcy May. He looks into her eyes, and its a look that is all at once romantic and sinister. Louisa Karuse as Zoe and Julia Garner as Sarah are also very effective in their portrayls of other women devoted to the cult. As mentioned Sarah Paulson is a marvel to watch, as is Tom Dancy. One slight problem I had with the movie included his character. There is a scene where a sense of sexual attraction seems to form between him and Martha and then it is written off and left on the cutting room floor for the rest of the film. With so many stories going on at once, it may not be a bad idea to let that one go – but it left me wanting a little more.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a striking film. It’s the first film from its director, Sean Durkin. This is a fantastic feat to make such a solid and interesting film on your first swing of the bat. Durkin has spoken about the great ammount of research he has done in interviewing members of cults who have escaped – and it shows here. There is only one thing about the film that stops me from giving it a 5 star rating – and that is the end. I have toiled over my thoughts on the final scene for quite a while since seeing the film this past weekend. Don’t worry I will not spoil it for you – I wouldn’t dare. At first, I’ll admit, I hated the ending. So did the majority of people around me. As the screen went black the audience let out a mixture of reactions which varied from groans to frustration noises similar to one you may make when you burned the breakfast. As I walked home, I thought about it more, and realized I may have liked the way it ended. Then the next morning I realized I needed at least 30 more seconds to be happy with the end. So, in the end, I am unsure of my thoughts. I would love to hear what those of you who have seen the film think. I cannot give it a perfect rating, but I can recommend it to you as a must see. I think the buzz for this film will only grow as it releases wider and wider – and it is very much worth your time and money.

Leaving the theatre I just had to listen to our 2 ladies from before. Here is a bit of what I heard while trying to appear like I wasn’t listening in:

Autograph Seeker: Now you said that girl was related to the Olsen twins?!
Festival Goer: Yes, isn’t that strange.
AS: I wonder why she didn’t star in a sitcom too, then she would be like a famous name by now.
FG: I was pretty impressed with her performance, weren’t you?
AS: Yes, very much, is she going to be here?
(she slowly takes out her autograph book and pen)

**** / out of *****

Grade: B+

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  • If you like movies about cults, you might like Kevin Smith’s Red State. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it had really terrifying moments.

  • never seen much movies like this but all the buzz is really making me want to see it soon…

  • Vincenzo – I have been looking forward to seeing Red State for quite some time. It was in Chicago on one of Kevin’s Smith’s tours with the film, where the tickets were quite expensive – and I missed it. I am very much looking forward to it. I have read some exciting things!

  • FYI – ‘Red State’ is also available in iTunes for $5. I’m personally going to wait until it’s on Netflix, because I’m not a huge fan of Kevin Smith, but I am curious.

    I’m seeing ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ on Halloween. I think that’s a good night to watch it.

  • For sure Alex! Please let me know your thoughts, especially on the ending.

  • Hey Casey, good review! I saw MMMM earlier this week, and I agree with everything you said about the performances. Additionally, I thought it was shot with a beautiful drabness (if there is such a thing) and seamlessly transitioned from one timeline to the other. It’s a strong contender for my end of year top ten for sure.

    Some thoughts on the ending which, it’s safe to say, worked for me a lot better than I think it did for you. (MINOR SPOILERS) First off, I think it’s definitely a non-ending. When the credits started rolling, people began laughing out of some combination of perplexity and bafflement. So did I. But the movie cuts off at a point of high tension, not allowing for any kind of payoff or denouement. That’s kind of thrilling, but I understand the puzzlement.

    But the finale is more than just cinematic trickery. The non-ending speaks, I feel, to what is sure to be a back-and-forth struggle Martha is bound to have with the people she abandoned, because they are not about to let her go all that easily. The movie has no ending because Martha’s predicament itself has no ending. Martha’s story is likely to go on in perpetuity, so it may as well just end somewhere. At least it does end on a more foreboding note.

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