Monday, November 21, 2011

Four Name Free for All

Every week, there are brand new movies released. Whether they can be found in every major movie theater in the country or just a few, a new film gets that chance to break in an audience, or to capture a whole generation's imagination in one fell swoop. Often there is so much out there that even when I really want to see something on the more limited/indie scale, it is wedged out of my schedule by other, more widely-released titles. More than a few times this year I have earnestly meant to see a film in the theater, only to have it fall by the wayside as bigger fare bulldozes it's way through. That's why when Another Earth came out, I was watching Captain America and Friends with Benefits. When Hobo with a Shotgun came around, it was Thor and (hurk!) Something Borrowed. Gnomeo and Juliet was put aside for The Eagle, while Oscar-bait A Better Life was passed up for Bad Teacher, possibly the worst movie of 2011. When Fox Searchlight drama Martha Marcy May Marlene came to theaters the same weekend as Paranormal Activity 3 and The Three Musketeers, it tempted the same fate as those those other limited release films. Thankfully, it stuck at local theaters a bit longer than those previous misses had, and once all the mainstream films I really wanted to see in the theater dried up, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this mysterious film festival favorite was still ready and waiting to be seen. While I suspect most people who wanted to see this film on the big screen already have (I was in fact the only person to sit throughout the entire showing), I was glad to finally get some quality indie film viewing into a schedule packed with so many mediocre blockbusters.

No twin Olsens here!
Two years after her younger sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) disappeared off the face of the planet, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is shocked when that same girl calls her out of the blue and asks to be picked up from a remote suburban town. Without talking about what happened to her with Lucy or her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), it is obvious that Martha has picked up some odd and out-of-the-ordinary habits from her time away. At the same time, Martha becomes increasingly panicked as she believes she has been followed by the cult she had just escaped. The farm from which she escaped is only a few hours away; there she was "cleansed" (drugged), "loved" (raped), and brainwashed into thinking she was cleansed and loved by the men in the community and their enigmatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and then told to turn around to induct other women in the same manner. Becoming more steadily paranoid and delusional, Martha drives a wedge between herself and her sister, creating a gulf that might never be again crossed.

Yup, he plays the guitar, too
The story is told in a smooth blend of current day, memory and dream, each moment giving us just a little more insight into what has happened to Martha over the past two years. As she tries with much difficulty to adapt to everyday life, normal activities so natural that her family doesn't even notice brings back horrific memories of the things Martha experienced and the things that she has done. Haunting in its execution, the story never gives you too much at once, allowing each morsel of news to wash over you so that you can take in the horrific things that happen in these cults. Not bad for a first effort at feature film-making by director and screenwriter Sean Durkin, who eerily knows what strings to pull at appropriate moments.

Cut-off shorts and guns; sexy in the sixties, sexy now
It helps when the cast does such a good job of building the story, especially The OIsen Twins' baby sister Elizabeth. In her feature film debut, Olsen is a blank slate as the movie opens, only to gradually reveal more of her character as her story is presented to us. How she made such a splash out of nowhere would be worthy of a paragraph all by itself, but suffice it to say that we are so entranced by Martha's paranoia mainly because Olsen convinces us that it must be true. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy sadly can't match Olsen's natural talent, but both do a good job playing "normal" types who can't wrap their heads around Martha's strange behavior. Paulson especially does her best in scenes opposite Olsen, as both sides struggle to find any common ground in their conversations, trying desperately to be sisters again but not understanding how. While most of the cultists are a dry bunch (with small exceptions for young actresses Louisa Krause and Julia Garner), John Hawkes once again bursts forth with a performance that hearkens back to his Academy Award-nominated role in 2010's Winter's Bone. While never raising his voice above a barely hushed tone, Patrick's potential for violence and inflicting harm is never doubted and obvious from scene one. Manipulative, cruel, and determined are never good character traits in a man, let alone one in charge of his own private commune, which is why Hawkes does well by never letting us forget how evil he really is, even in scenes of relative good times, such as when he plays a song on guitar for the others in the cult. While this role might not be as remembered (or as well-loved) as Winter's Bone's Teardrop, but Hawkes definitely deserves credit for what he brings in a relatively quiet role.

"It's okay; I'll win the Oscar next year"
Of course, Martha Marcy May Marlene wouldn't be a true limited release title without some sort of perceived flaws to mar what could have been a truly great experience. In this case it's the film's often slower than necessary pacing that does its best to dull some of the quieter moments present. While those issues fix themselves somewhat the closer we get to the story's conclusion, they do a lot of damage early on. Speaking of the ending, the final act also suffers a bit from an apparent lack of conviction, falling short of fantastic and instead residing securely in "Huh?" territory. Still, there is a good film in here for those willing to wait it out, and the great performances more than make this a good option for when you're desperately trying to avoid the mainstream's worst offenders (yes, I'm looking at you, Breaking Dawn). You might want to wait until it comes out on DVD (wait much longer and you won't likely have a choice), and there are a few difficult-to-watch moments, but whatever way you choose to see this title, it's very much worth the time and effort.

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