Frame to Frame

Atmospheric Eeriness

“Fear is the most amazing feeling of all,” says Patrick (John Hawkes) to our heroine Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), as the final act begins. With that line we’re hit with a realization – fear is the driving force behind Sean Durkin’s debut feature film. Underneath the lush cinematography, hiding behind the ominous score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans and present in almost every glance and gesture Martha makes, lurks a fear that dominates the narrative and spurs the plot onward. It’s also what keeps us glued to the screen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with the seemingly idyllic country life, but it takes only a brief wordless montage for us to grasp the fact that this is no Eden. Men eat first, women get what’s left. Men leave for the night, women stay behind to clean. Afterwards, the girls go to their mutual room where mattresses are laid out for them.

No, this isn’t an all-girls boarding house from the 1800s, and if you already get a feeling of eeriness you’d be making Durkin smile with satisfaction. Martha lives in this community, and one morning gets the strength to escape, calling her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a payphone. Lucy hasn’t heard or seen Martha in over two years and naturally takes her in, a beautiful and huge house by a lake in Connecticut.

Most of the film is built around Martha’s attempt to assimilate back into regular life, as her paranoia grows that her past caretakers may know where she is.

If there’s one element that sets this film apart from the rest of the small, independent art-house films of the year, it’s structure. Movement from Martha’s return to normal living to the memories of the country household and its charismatic cult leader have to be credited to editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier. He creates such fluid cuts that scenes go down like a glass of cool water.

At certain moments dreams are thrown into the mix, raising questions of what is present, what is real, what is past and what prowls in Martha’s subconscious. By the end, you get the sense that it’s the experience of watching this world unfold that was given priority, narrative taking backseat. Character development is scarce and much of the back story is left to your imagination; the focus is instead placed on Martha’s present state of mind.

To provide some balance, it doesn’t hurt to have a seasoned actor like Hawkes, who plays the enigmatic creep to perfection (see his last year’s Oscar nominated role from Winter’s Bone for more proof) and breathes life to the cult leader, Patrick. He creates a villain that manipulates and influences with his cunning words and musical talent, preaches twisted ideology on fear, death, life and identity, nearly convincing the audience of his twisted ways.

A few words need to be said about Olsen’s breakout role here. Younger sister to those bubbly Olsen twins you might not want to remember from TV’s Full House, this Olsen chose a much different path that inevitably led her to Durkin’s film. She’s in almost every shot and the insecurity, trepidation and tenderness she exudes in all her actions is something to behold. Come Oscar nomination time, her name will be thrown in the mix just like Jennifer Lawrence’s was last year for Winter’s Bone. She holds her own next to Hawkes, and outshines Paulson by a mile, who, to be fair, is by no means weak.

With Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has created a mood, an atmosphere that grips you and makes you almost subliminally revisit the film in your mind after you’ve seen it.
Though not without its faults, this is still among the 10 best films of the year, easily. Its visual storytelling, patient and slow burning camera movements and central powerhouse performances make for an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Most amazing of all is that this is the first feature film for Durkin, which he wrote and directed. Rare cinematic feats don’t come so often, and in a year that has been full of wonderful cinema from all over the world, to stand among the best is a big accomplishment.

Playing at the AMC. Ignore the site’s official rating for the film and go see it for yourself.