By Matthew D'Abate
When some people think of independent cinema, they see long arbitrary evocations of art for art's sake cinematography, high-minded excursions into overtly intellectual concepts, and pretentious, heavy-handed messages delivered by irreverent directors far outside the mainstream appeal of the nine to five, salaried tastes of the common person. And, often times, this conception is not far from the truth. Certain films, independent from the Hollywood system or not, do bare the marks of film school posturing.
Conversely, the beauty of independent cinema is in its low-fi sensibilities. Independent cinema possesses the freedom to explore thematic nuances ranging from explicit sexual themes to exposure to violent, even vulgar, sides of human existence. Often times these authentic representations of life are prevented by the mainstream cinema's adolescent and outdated MPAA rating system. In fact, it can be argued that is exactly the point of keeping a healthy and thriving independent film scene in America (which unfortunately has been crushed by the strip mall, 3-D-obsessed, popcorn-selling mentality the majority of cinema houses across the nation now try to pass as 'entertainment').
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a perfect example of the bravery and commitment to story, not flash or explosions, or any other expectant troupes of a 'psychological thriller'; this film blends both mainstream and outlying tastes and is a banner film for 2011. The third production from Williamsburg Brooklyn's film collective Borderline Films, Martha Marcy May Marlene is the combined efforts of director/writer Sean Durkin and two of his childhood friends, producers Antonio Campos and Josh Mond.
The repetitious nature of its title intrigues some and elicits scoffs from others. However, is no less poignant after just one viewing of Durkin's understated picture about a young girl very lost in the caverns of her mind.
The trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Martha, the protagonist, escapes from a cult in the Catskill Mountains, calling upon her sister Lucy for help. Martha is confused, dissociative, and weakened by fatigue for days, assailing the domestic tranquility of her sister and her well-to-do architect husband, Ted, on their month long sabbatical from New York City. Martha has apparently been through some changes, and Lucy and Ted, confounded by her lack of hygiene and total disregard for social mores, consider she may need more professional care then they can provide.
Her behavior grows more erratic with each day, as slowly they learn that Martha has undergone some kind of severe trauma. The film weaves hypnotically together her experiences with the 'progressive' cult and her major haunting comes from Patrick, the cult's reptilian leader, hissing his quiet philosophies in her ears. The others all believe in Patrick's principles, and the contrast between life on the farm and life at the lake house creates an unbearable tension for Martha's psyche.
Let it be said here that Elizabeth Olson, who plays Martha with stunning and immediate gravitas, is an absolute ingénue, and her performance in this film is revelatory for its blend of the pained youth and victimization, all beleaguered by Patrick and his cult. Her doll eyes exalt her astray and her naked vulnerability pulls the audience along the paced narrative. Though Olson will get notoriety for being the younger sibling of her twin older sisters, this performance alone is the creation of new, raw talent and is glorious to behold.
John Hawkes, whose turn as the cult leader Patrick, is mystifying to watch, creating such a pantheon of awkward truths, the audience is almost seduced as well, blurring judgment which life style is more fraudulent or destructive. That is how you know the strange, minimalist magic of Martha Marcy May Marlene has captured you.
This is an example of what independent film was made to do: to challenge, to seduce, and most importantly, to deliver a clever unique perspective with blunt, unapologetic authenticity.
Martha Marcy May Marlene plays at Angelika Film Center.