By its very subject and filmic nature, Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM) is no happy camper of a film. But it’s happy news for those of us who believe in the power of the film medium to reinvent and refresh itself, and it is one of the few emotionally charged, innovative American films released this year. Miranda July’s brilliant surreal minimalist film The Future is another that springs to mind. That film lasted only a week in town. MMMM, more accessible in its narrative plan, stands a better chance of a reasonable run, although the inherent challenge in young writer/director Sean Durkin’s film may fend off the average moviegoer.
Modestly budgeted, naturalistically shot, and richly conceived, MMMM takes on the subject of a vulnerable yet strong-willed young woman (played with stunning, quiet power and Oscar-worthy wowness by Elizabeth Olsen) lured into a vaguely cult-like commune in the Catskills. Her compound name is, aptly, a combination of her given name and the one assigned her by the farm’s mind-gaming guru. She is struggling to break free, mostly in psychic rather than physical terms, and the film more or less tracks the process of haunting memories from her life “on the farm” juxtaposed in time-leaping chronology with a life in the normalized real world with her sister.
Once again, John Hawkes, as the axiom-spewing “cult”-leader Svengali, asserts a weirdly charismatic robustness, flecked by sinister antihero qualities, much as he did in Winter’s Bone, the rustic, mythic, and foreboding texture of which MMMM resembles. We read more Charles Manson than a pseudo-Buddhist guru when he tells Martha/Marcy that death “brings you to now, and that makes you totally present. That’s nirvana … death is pure love.” Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Much of what empowers the film is its careful restraint and unwillingness to play the game of filling in blanks. We get only wisps of the backstory, which could explain Martha’s troubled, liberation-seeking mental state, just as we are never really spoon-fed information on any religious or philosophical underpinning for the cult-esque farm. What we don’t know actually energizes the end result of an oddly gripping film in which the unknowable and pesky mysteries go bump in the night and day.