Let me start by saying this is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s a real gem, an exceptional directorial début from Sean Durkin –winning him Best Director for a dramatic film at Sundance-, and an impressive first feature film performance from Elizabeth Olson. And the script, also penned by Durkin, though simple in its arc, is a thought-provoking, complex, and deeply chilling tale. It’s intense and penetrative in its exploration asking the question “what is the right way to live?”
To which there is no conclusive answer.
Martha Marcy May Marlene follows Martha (Olsen), a twenty-something girl who after fleeing a commune contacts her estranged sister for help. Taken in by Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha struggles to re-assimilate, haunted by painful memories and her disturbing past. Martha Marcy May Marlene switched seamlessly between the present and Martha’s past where for the last two years she lived in a commune led by Patrick (John Hawkes), the banal yet sinister head of the commune. Olsen is incredible, delivering a character whose warped sense of reality and mental instability cleverly establishes a level of paranoia and uncertainty in the viewer to approximate that of her character. As she questions what’s real and what isn’t so does the viewer. Durkin creates such a tense, eerie and unpleasant atmosphere that at any moment you feel like something could happen; that her past could materialise and drag her back. But it never does. The films abrupt end –it comes out of nowhere- leaves you in the middle of things. The feeling of despair and tension is left with you. This is not a film you’ll be walking away from with a smile on your face. But you won’t forget about it in a hurry. It’s an incredible piece of film making, with unbelievable talent worthy of its major awards buzz. Although its Olsen who steals the show, indie film regulars John Hawkes and Brady Corbet (Watts) –even in such a minor role- both deliver stand out performances; penetrative and disturbing. Corbet is a pro at playing charming yet unpleasant characters after his role in Michael Hanekes U.S remake of Funny Games and his casting here was perfect.
There are no gimmicks here. It’s a character driven film with little action. There are no explosions, fart gags or hints of a sequel. It doesn’t have an A-list cast, though these are incredible actors, and there are no special effects to wow over. But it is beautifully shot with moments of silence that convey more than most pages of dialogue could; that creates such an incredible atmosphere and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You’ll be wowed by its simplicity but also the intricacy of it. If you’re looking for entertainment you won’t find it here. What you will get is an evocative, beautifully pieced together, imaginative and disturbing film that lingers long after you leave the theatre or switch off the TV. It’s the first film of the year to blow me away. Now I have the challenge of finding something to beat it.