Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best movies of the year. It features fantastic performances from Elizabeth Olsen (in the title role of Martha, otherwise known as Marcy May), John Hawkes, and Sarah Paulson and its technical achievements are manifest - made on a very low budget, it is beautifully shot in locations that are perfectly selected and designed to be deeply evocative of the mood of the film. But it is Sean Durkin’s work as the writer and director of the film that makes it truly noteworthy.
Durkin, who at 29 is one of three NYU graduates who have founded Borderline Films, a kind of film collaborative based in Brooklyn (as described, at length, in an article in New York Magazine). Despite his relative youth his direction is confident, assured - and, indeed, speaks to an awareness and understanding of the medium that is rare in filmmakers regardless of their age or experience.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, simply put, brilliantly exploits the particularities and peculiarities of film as an artistic medium. The entire structure of the piece is couched in Martha’s unreliable consciousness. She has just escaped from a cult, which we see in flashback, and her interaction and engagement with the “real” world of her sister (Paulson) and brother-in-law is disoriented and disorienting, marked by a kind of fundamental confusion about what society is and who she is, and how she fits into that society. She strips down to swim in public; she climbs into bed with her sister and brother-in-law mid-coitus; she becomes convinced that members of the cult are following her and that her life is in danger. The camera tends to linger in close-ups, particularly of Martha’s perturbingly empty face, and as the film progresses the cuts between the past and the present become increasingly fuzzy: the distinction between the fever-dream of the cult and the cold, uninviting reality of mainstream society becomes considerably harder to delineate.
At a certain point we begin to doubt the veracity of some of the cult scenes and some of the scenes taking place in the present: we have no way of knowing definitively whether any of the images we see on the screen by the end of the film are “real” or just in Martha’s head. In fact, the distinction begins to seem almost irrelevant: whether or not these events actually did happen, she certainly believes in them. And we are, after all, seeing them: what, then, constitutes a cinematic reality? If the image appears on the screen before us, given the same weight as all of the other images that precede and follow it, is it not in some sense real? If we believe we have experienced something, does it not affect us just as a “real” event does? Martha’s belief that she is being hunted may be self-generated but it nevertheless dictates her outlook and her actions.
Durkin capitalizes on Martha’s instability and makes it his camera’s, and by extension his audience’s. I can think of few films this year that are so inherently, intuitively cinematic. The story moves forward with the visual, with the cut - though dialogue certainly has its place and is well-deployed, it is always secondary to the potentially treacherous image. The entire story is structured around this cinematic property - the power of the image and its seeming truth - and could not have been told using any other medium. Why do we go to the movies, after all, if not to see a story that could not truly have been expressed any way but cinematically? Watching such a film is an invigorating experience, even if the narrative content is, as is the case with Martha Marcy May Marlene, deeply disturbing. They remind us why we go to the movies.