NZIFF ’11: Martha Marcy May Marlene

nziff ’11: Martha Marcy May Marlene
dir. Sean Durkin | USA | 2011 | 101 mins.

The scariest of horror films take place in the realm of the mind, exploring the darkest recesses of the brain and the horrible things that lurk there. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not an out-and-out horror film, but definitely feels like one.

The film, which explores a woman whose mind has been bent and broken beyond all recognition, starts with a thrilling sequence in which Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) runs away from the cult she has been part of two years. Trembling, she asks her sister to come pick her up, all the while constantly back-pedalling and saying she’s fine. The phone call is representative of the film to come, which follows Martha’s recovery and also her time spent in the cult. First-time writer-director Sean Durkin cuts slickly between them, and what unfolds in one half is devastating: Martha is trying to regain some semblance of ‘normal’ life, but can’t.

Olsen carries the film on her very capable shoulders with a performance that is simultaneously watchful and brilliantly distracted. She plays Martha as both a woman who could buy into a cult, painting years of backstory with subtle strokes, but also as a woman who can’t take what the cult asks of her. There are two telephone scenes in the film, near the start and roughly towards the end, where she shifts masterfully through a wide range of emotions. Her Martha is a woman who has been broken time and time again, and this time she will probably never recover. The performances surrounding her are also very good and serve to colour in the shades of Martha’s world. This is especially true of John Hawkes as the charming, unnerving cult leader, who has the ability to quickly turn cold.

Durkin plays around with image and sound in ways that bring the tone closer to horror; he holds uncomfortably long on some of the film’s most chilling moments, and banal sounds become terrifying—like the ringing of a house phone late in the piece. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is gorgeous and subtle, and emphasises one of the most prescient points the film has to make: Martha’s place of recovery is no less damaging than what she’s escaped from.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the more impressive débuts in a festival full of them, and it takes some of the darkest stabs at society: cults and brainwashing are obviously dangerous, but the upper middle-class milieu may be no better. The film doesn’t labour on it, but it’s that message, and Olsen’s terrific debut, which lingers long after the credits roll.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland, and finish there this weekend; they started in Wellington yesterday, and travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, then Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton in September and October, before finishing in Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.