Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

12 November 2011

Keeping Them Down on the Farm

As you have probably noticed if you've been reading this blog regularly, i don't usually write about new movies. Up until now, the only exception to that rule has been The Tree of Life, but even there, i waited until i'd seen it three times before i felt confident enough to write about it. But tonight, i'm going to make an exception and maybe mark this as the beginning of a shift in my modus operandi

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins in what first appears to be an idyllic setting, a communal farm somewhere in the Catskills. The steady rhythm of a hammer, the chirping of crickets, the soft voices of people working together, all blend together to lull the viewer into imagining--however briefly--how peaceful it would be to live this way, far removed from sirens and cell phones, and all the other endless assaults on the eardrums and the soul that are part of most of our daily lives. It doesn't take long, though, for a slow sense of uneasiness to creep into this bucolic scene. A pleasant-enough shot of the men in the communal family, gathered around the table sharing a meal, cuts to a strange image of the women waiting languidly outside the room, one of them half-heartedly toying with a strand of another's hair. It is only after we see them outside that we realize the strangeness of their absence from that earlier image of the family dinner. The women in this family do not eat until the men have finished. The oddness of this realization begins to compound itself until it quickly becomes apparent that this group is more cult than family, dominated by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a troubled young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who leaves the cult but cannot leave it behind. At various points, she goes by each of the names in the title of the film: Martha was her name before she found her way to the farm and the name she reclaims when she leaves; Marcy May is the new name she is given by Patrick, part of the process of stripping away her identity as a person with a life beyond this new family; Marlene is the generic name assumed by all the women in the group when they answer telephone calls from people in the outside world. We never learn how Martha originally found her way to the farm, but it isn't all that hard to imagine how this lonely and vulnerable young woman would have been an easy target for the promise of a peaceful, embracing family. Eventually, she runs away but why she does so becomes clear only gradually. Her story emerges in a series of flashbacks that flow so imperceptibly through the narrative that at first it takes a conscious effort on the viewer's part to separate the two timeframes of her story. Martha is taken in by her recently-married older sister Lucy and her husband. Old strains in the relationship between the two sisters quickly re-emerge and are compounded by Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) guilt over not having been better equipped to care for Martha when their parents died, a guilt that Martha constantly and manipulatively reignites. But caring for Martha remains no easy task, despite Lucy's efforts. Martha cannot instantly be restored to normalcy simply by leaving the farm: the emotional problems that brought her into the cult do not magically disappear when she leaves it, but are instead compounded by what she experienced there. 

Powerful performances by Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes help to make this such an unsettlingly good film. Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a nuanced performance as Martha, ranging from strong-willed to submissive, from manipulative to nearly catatonic. Originally seduced and enthralled by Patrick, she eventually must confront the reality of the evil in which she has become enmeshed and manages to make her escape; but once she has found her way to the bourgeois safety of her sister's home she shifts between extremes of behavior: at one minute leaping into a lake naked in front of her stunned sister and brother-in-law, at another curled in bed in a fetal position.  Without ever providing many details of her backstory, Olsen's performance manages to satisfy the viewer's curiosity about what kind of girl could end up in a situation like this one. 

John Hawkes is a smoldering presence on the screen: alternately gentle and brutal, but always exerting complete control over the members of his constructed family. He is not a man to be crossed, and although his first tactic is always a soft and reasonable tone, when that doesn't work he is capable of terrible cruelty. He is a skinny but sinewy figure, all ropy arms and piercing eyes; the other men in the group are bigger, burlier, and younger than he, but it seems inconceivable that any of them would go against him and win. Everything about him is deliberate and designed to reenforce his dominance over the others. There are echoes here of Teardrop, the character he played in Winter's Bone; but watching him in this role, i could hardly believe that this was the same actor who played the sweet but woefully inept shoe salesman in Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. In that film, he plays a distraught father trying desperately to come to terms with his divorce and to win over the love and admiration of his children. His most defining moment comes at the beginning of the film when he decides to impress his sons with a magic trick, setting his hand on fire. Unfortunately he forgets the most important part of the trick, and uses lighter fluid instead of alcohol; consequently, his spectacular trick ends with a badly burned hand. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, his character controls his family through the sheer force of personality: he burns, but with a very different fire, one capable of incinerating anyone who dares to cross him. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene trailer.

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