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Monday, November 7, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Limited Release Date: 10-21-2011)

        To say that Sundance Film Festival favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene is wrought with dread would be the ultimate understatement. The film opens with hazy images of farm workers toiling away in idyllic, lush pastures, but even here, there's an unshakable feeling that something dastardly lurks just beneath the surface. A stoic young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) slips away through the trees, retrieving a pay phone and calling her long-estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who immediately takes her sibling into her posh, yuppie lake side home. But Martha, as the sister calls her, can't seem to shake memories of her life on the farming commune, flash-backs constantly triggered by one mundane occurrence after another. In these sequences, she goes by the moniker Marcy May, a title bestowed upon her by the mysterious and strangely charismatic leader of the group, Patrick (John Hawkes). Paulson's Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) try to connect with Martha, but her demons threaten to tear apart her life, and her sanity.

        The story might sound vaguely familiar, and that's because a slew of such movies have been made in the very recent past. Films like Inception and Black Swan have had viewers questioning the lines between memories and hallucinations, while Winter's Bone's dreary, seedy, mercilessly chilled southern setting also comes to mind. Amidst its increasingly vast sea of brethren, it's amazing that Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't just come off as a simple helping of more of the same. What's more, the film is nothing short of a revelation, an absolute miracle of tone and ambience.

        First time Writer/Director Sean Durkin took home the Best Director prize at Sundance, and, my god, is it easy to see why. The guy simply gets everything right, concocting something that is at once hugely stressful and compulsively watchable. The fashion in which Martha loses her mind is decidedly more subtle than the haunted-house theatrics of Black Swan, and is, to my mind, the better for it. If there is any justice in the world (and I'm willing to bet a $20 that there isn't), Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier will gather an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work here, the film's dreamy structure only succeeding because of his graceful, effortless cuts between Martha's present and the memories of her past. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes also deserves a deafening round of applause, composing one striking image after another, gorgeous, unsettling off-kilter angles abounding, a smoky camera filter silently alluding to the sinister happenings afoot.

        This of course all goes without mentioning the impeccable cast, each performance solid in its own respect. Though Paulson, Dancy, and the many other small players prove more than serviceable, the film's weight and sense of meaning come from Hawkes and Olsen. The former plays a much different shade of his smarmy devil than in Winter's Bone, conveying power and terrifying authority through smiles and silence, the kind of thing that only a great actor is capable of accomplishing. Olsen, the younger, seemingly untainted sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, explores similar notions of the idiom, 'less is more,' her reluctance to share her damaging past betrayed by forceful looks of anxiety that occasionally flash across her otherwise placid face. She's sensational, and much has been made of her ever since the movie first started generating buzz, but, for my money, the most exciting talent here is Durkin.

        The movie is perhaps a hair too long, but the only reason you notice this error is because the film is otherwise pretty damn close to perfect. This is one of the most searing, elaborate, and fully-realized directorial debuts that I've ever seen, causing hearts to pound and race despite an almost impermeable sense of quiet. I could talk about this movie for days, but you'd probably be better off seeing the little terror for yourself. Not many achieve greatness on their first time out, but Durkin's not just anybody. He's a special talent, and here, he's created a special movie.

Grade: A

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