Thursday, 9 February 2012



Oh dear. I wanted to like it so much. It's another potentially fascinating film that ends up as an unfulfilled and unfulfilling piece of work: an interesting subject, a really nice atmosphere, the grains of an intriguing and involving story, but it consistently annoys in the manner of its telling, and the absurd refusal to resolve it. The film has been getting pretty good reviews, and yet again I just don't get it. I'm thrilled that niche audience movies are getting released to multiplexes, albeit only the biggest with enough screens, but for all the nicely ragged indie feel, it's on story that the film falls down: more than once I momentarily lost track of whether I was in present or flashback, and there's no proper ending as the narrative just stops. Some might argue that the main character's mental state is what it's about, rather than whether the bad guys will catch up with her or not, but it merely feels there's a couple of scenes missing before the end credits.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who flees a rural, apparently idyllic but somewhat Mansonian commune and ends up with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband at their lakeside Connecticut holiday home. Through a string of flashbacks we learn something of what went on back at the commune, how it wasn't the simple and uncomplicated alternative to capitalism and greed as it first appeared, and something (though infuriatingly not all) of why she ran away. But can she ever reconnect with the "normal" world, and confront what actually happened to her back under the less than benevolent eye of Patrick (John Hawkes)?

The truth of what went on at the commune is pretty horrible, moreso given the level of Martha's complicity. Renamed Marcy May (everyone in the commune is renamed for some reason - it's never explained but I suppose there was a rationale behind it), she goes along with the criminal activities as well as the more unpleasant sexual practices, principally Patrick's so-called ritual of cleansing. And ultimately two years of living with this twisted set of values has left her unable to properly engage with people outside. Do they want her back? Are they planning to abduct her back to her new "family"?

The film certainly seems to suggest so: in its latter stages Martha believes she recognises someone - but does she? - and in its final moments there's some business with a car following her, but the film frustratingly cuts off at the second we find out, leaving the story unfinished. Which means all the good work up to that point is largely thrown away. And it is good work: the film looks terrific, with a lovely low-budget indie feel about it, there's no issue with the performances; it's simply down to the fact that writer-director Sean Durkin either didn't know how to conclude the film, or deliberately chose not to. By all means make films which raise questions with the audience, but one of the questions shouldn't be "And then what happened?"


1 comment:

Pearce said...

I don't think that the movie refused to resolve anything: it showed us what Martha went through at the cult and how it changed her, it showed us how much this twisted her ability to function in the outside world, and finally it showed us what the rest of her life would be like.

I thought that the ending was perfect. It didn't matter if she recognised someone or not, it didn't matter if their car was being followed or not - what mattered is that for the rest of her life, whether it's seven more minutes or seventy more years, she'll always think they are watching her. Given the late-movie revelation about Martha's involvement in a murder, it's a legitimate fear as well as a sign of her paranoia.

I can't imagine being satisfied with an ending that showed the cult catching up with her, whether that meant them capturing or killing her, or her managing to finally escape them or "defeat" them, or the authorities stepping in, or anything like that.

The renaming of the cult members is pretty simple. It's a method of control - by renaming her Patrick has taken her identity and firmly established that there is a line between before she joined and after she joined. It's a common tactic among cults, reinforcing a "them and us" mentality.

I wonder if you'd like the movie more if you watched it a second time.