Project: Martha Marcy May Marlene… Or How I Learned That Everyone is Out To Get Me
Let’s start with that ending. The conclusion to this capital I Indie film is one of the boldest, brashest endings in recent memory. I once joked to a friend while watching that Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx movie Collateral, during its high-octane, killer-chasing-the-good guys in-the-dark climax, wouldn’t it be ballsy (and funny) if the movie just ended there. Roll through the shadows, then fade to black. The ending writer/director Sean Durkin has cooked up comes about as close as I’ll think we’ll get to that anti-ending, though it’s not entirely thematically flat or too gimmicky. Though to be fair, it is a bit gimmicky, and confounding, at least to the people I saw it with who walked out of the theater shaking their heads.
I probably had the inverse experience they had with the film. Where they were enraptured watching the title character shift between the present of acclimating to the affluent life her sister (played by Sarah Paulson) has with her architect husband (debonair Brit Hugh Dancy) and flashbacks to her life in a cult, I found myself somewhat bored. Not that the film is boring exactly; it’s that what Durkin creates by virtue of his flashback heavy narrative is a familiar pattern and rhythm, one that teases out the big crescendo where it all comes crashing down.
But like the song the cult-leader Patrick (Jon Hawkes) plays midway through the picture, the winding strands of memory and present, reality and facsimile, merge softly like the rivulets of a rustic faucet. The film is soft and sweet, but also patently perverse, and, like Martha, unable to successfully negotiate between the ghosts of the past and the hassles of the present.
There is no scene of it all coming crashing down, no heightened showdown between the sociopath and our heroine. MMMM is a horror movie removed of climax, as the true horror has already happened (or will happen, in the unseen moments after the final shot). Durkin withholds the surprise of a surprise and the film’s anti-climatic, ambiguous ending–beyond underscoring the psychological cage our heroine will forever remain, keeps the audience frozen at the moment where the person in the other car could be one of the cult members or another living shadow of Matha’s disturbing past.
Neat trick for sure, but for me that ambiguity cinches the film, providing the dramatic equivalent of a punchline to a series of meandering sequences. These fragments of course are meant to mimic the title character’s cognitive dissonance and confused state. While mostly successful, these pieces slowly push the narrative forward and clumsily accumulate dramatic potency. is a fine enough film. Durkin deserves praise for taking a premise that could have made a good enough thriller and inverting it to find other areas to explore, even if he overreaches a bit and stumbles a long the way. Durkin has crafted a work that is so much in the psyche of the main character, that it’s almost hard to evaluate his technique, especially when, to the film’s credit and demerit, it evokes nothing but the wounded world of a young woman falling apart.
That young woman is played by Elizabeth Olson, with subtlety and haunted charm. Much has already been said about her performance, but, for me this isn’t the bold, look-at-me performance often vetted toward Oscar season. This is Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, a gritty, real, and muted interpretation that projects everything inward instead of outward. Chaos emerges from the character’s withdrawal. Martha isn’t just weird, young, or lacking manners as a result of her indoctrination, she has no sense of boundaries. Save of course whatever prevents her from outright telling her sister what has happened. The film is full of cringe-worthy faux pais, the most notable being Martha climbing into her sister’s bed as she and her husband are having sex, indicating the irreparable damage done. Olson very carefully sells these moments with the dumb innocence of a foreigner. That the character is also often bright, funny, sardonic attests to Olson’s talent.
Taken at face value, MMMM is a startling debut that wrings the most out of its modest scale. Not everything works and the film is too clever for its own damn good, but what stays in the mind are the beautiful images, the supple performances, and Martha’s resigned hopeful smile just before we cut to black.