At least once a year—usually during awards season—we get a movie that everyone goes lollipops over that I not only don’t “get,” but I just plain dislike. This year has had more than its share actually, though the clear winner is newcomer Sean Durkin’s awkwardly-titled Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene. I never like to completely condemn movies like this, because they obviously have an audience—and there are usually good things about them. This one is no exception, though from a personal standpoint, my feelings are largely summed up by what I told the studio rep at the press screening—“It’s a badly photographed dreary little movie about dreary people I didn’t care what happened to.” Bear in mind, I’m in the minority here and your response may well be at odds with mine.
I should have known I was in trouble when I saw this film compared to the work of Michael Haneke. I did, however, expect technical competence, though since that is not invariably necessary in the realm of the indie film, I don’t know why I should have. Even so, I don’t know when I’ve seen such badly lit, murky cinematography in a theatrical release. This, of course, is excused by the film’s admirers as an aesthetic choice. Maybe, but it looks like ineptitude, amateurishness, or an insufficient budget for lighting equipment. The fact that scenes in the woods are often perfectly exposed makes me lean toward ineptitude.
That to one side, the story is all about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, whose acting is quite good, but not perhaps as revelatory as is claimed), who at the beginning of the film is living in a kind of communal cult headed up by Patrick (John Hawkes, also good). The exact nature of this cult is only made clear over the course of the film—via sometimes too-clever flashbacks—but it’s not really spoiling anything to say that it’s a kind of bargain-basement Manson family, but without any clear agenda. The point at the beginning is that Martha—rechristened Marcy May by Patrick (the Marlene being the all-purpose name for answering the phone)—wants to leave the cult and so calls her estranged sister, Lucy (TV actress Sarah Paulson), to come get her.
Lucy takes her to live with her and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy in a thankless role), in the conspicuous-consumption lakefront home they’re renting. To say that Martha doesn’t fit in would be an understatement. She has no sense of propriety—thinking swimming nude in public is OK and clambering into bed with Lucy and Ted when they’re having sex—and zero social skills. Even allowing for the fact that she’s been traumatized by Patrick and her experiences in the cult—to the point where a combination of paranoia and withdrawal from the only place she fits in have made her sense of reality sketchy at best—the film constantly threatens to make the character seem downright simple-minded.
The cult scenes are often disturbing—especially, the business of Patrick rewriting the girls’ lives to suit his image of them until they believe it themselves, and the process of drugging the newcomers so he can have sex with them by way of initiation—but I’m not sure what the point of the whole thing is. Nor am I clear on the point being made about the shallowness of the materialistic Lucy and Ted. Neither of them are likable, it’s true, but they’re generally less annoying than Martha—and I don’t think the idea was for the audience to find her annoying. Yet that’s mostly what I’m left with.
I do not, however, think this is a bad movie—apart from the photography and its in-your-face indie cred, which has become just as cliched as the worst of mainstream film. I merely think it’s not a movie for me. I neither enjoyed it, nor did I feel like it had anything of note to say. Others—even in the group I saw it with—found it compelling, deep and even terrifying. You may too. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.