Thursday, October 20, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Film: Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011, usa]
Where I saw it: Los Angeles @ LACMA
Who with: SJ
Rating: ***; SJ ?
Rating for post-screening Q & A: ****

This is why I was eager to move to Los Angeles right here. Free tickets [SJ works at LACMA now] to see an early screening of Martha Marcy May Marlene with the writer/director and a big chunk of the cast for a post-screening Q & A. Even if the movie didn't blow the doors off, just being able to do this kind of thing in the future really excites me. Between LACMA and some other places around town, I hope to see and hear a lot of people talk about their films and others. A cool thing for people who regularly read CineRobot is since I'm in LA, I might have early reviews of films just out that haven't gone wide yet, like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Skin I Live In from a couple of days ago.

I'm not too fond of the title of this movie as it's a mouthful and a tongue-twister. Martha Marcy May Marlene made me think this was a drama about a disturbed young woman with multiple personalities when I saw the trailer. It's not that at all. It's a drama all right, but it's about a woman who gets entangled in sort of a rural cult. John Hawkes plays "Patrick," the charismatic leader of the cult,  but in the post-screening Q & A, he pointed out that in his mind this wasn't a "cult" but a "community." I can see his rational for thinking that as an actor, but this was a cult, with people doing things against their will for the benefit of their leader to risk being ostracized in their new "family."

Elizabeth Olsen [yes, sister of the Olsen twins. I almost feel sorry for her since that is going to get mentioned in every single review of this movie. Including CineRobot!] plays the multiple-named title character who gets taken in by "Patrick" and his group of young followers. Very early in the film, she runs away through the woods to escape the group and is picked up by her older sister [Sarah Paulson] and the movie begins to jump back and forth between how "Martha" got into the cult, her day-to-day activities there and then her present life with sister, trying to forget all the psychological damage that was done to her from the cult.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mixed bag and a missed opportunity for something pretty good from first time director Sean Durkin. The story is powerful, the acting is excellent and the film has a strange quiet intensity to it that is to be applauded. I absolutely hated the disjointed non-linear aspect of how the film was edited between past and present. It felt clunky and even a bit of a gimmick to manipulate the audience's perceptions and feelings toward the characters. Less flashbacks would have helped, or just longer periods of time between the flashbacks might have increased my feelings for it greatly.

It's a shame that I didn't like this more as I have a long-held interest in cults from when I was nine year's old and Jim Jones' Peoples Temple mass suicide dominated the news in 1978. I was completely transfixed by the macabre story of these people in Guyana, Jones and the 1980 Powers Boothe starring TV movie Guyana Tragedy. I watched every second of that movie and sought out anything else I could find about cults. In the 1990s I was flying home from Seattle and had just purchased a copy of Time or Newsweek from 1978 that was an entire issue dedicated to the mass suicide. If you want to be left alone on a cross-country flight, whip out a cult-centric magazine and read it transfixed before and during the flight. Needless to say, no one spoke to me. Not sure I'd recommend that tactic in the post 9/11 world as you might get pulled aside by security after they notice your keen interest in doomsday death cults, ha.

I've actually put down "cult leader" on forms from time to time when someone is wanting to know about my private business when I've felt they didn't need to know. I might as well make a weird confession: I think I'd make a really good cult leader! I'd merge my fire and brimstone Southern Baptist roots with a luddite message that would definitely go the end times route. I don't see the point being a good cult leader if you aren't going to preach a message of the world ending.

Back to the movie. I was the prime audience member for Martha Marcy May Marlene due to my interest in cults. I did enjoy the scenes of "Martha" in the cult and the fact that it was just kind of a normal group, isolated from society, cut-off from the world, yet living this warped existence. The film would have been so much more powerful had it been primarily in one time period with less flashbacks though. Worth seeing and I'm curious to see what Dirkin does next, but a missed opportunity to deliver a scary bit of realism concerning what it would be like to live in a cult.

***Left to right in photo: Sean Dirkin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes***


hidden staircase said...

wasn't your faruq persona a cult leader? hahaha

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

Staircase: You win the CineRobot street cred award for throwing out a reference to Faruq! Most won't have the foggiest what you are talking about, but yes, Faruq was a made up cult-leader I portrayed myself in the world of zines in the mid to late 1990s.

I also pretended to be the cult-leader Esau Benjamin in a prank I pulled on a small town newspaper in the mid 1990s that created a storm of controversy in that town--the police, Oklahoma Highway Patrol and even the texas rangers got involved! But, that's another story altogether best read about in an old issue of Unpaved Road zine.

hidden staircase said...

well your faruq beard was memorable. street cred, ya! i remember esau too but not the details...what issue was it?!! i will have to search it out on my bookshelf.

hidden staircase said...

oh, by the talking about your zines make me miss the lo-tech, no-tech 90s! ah!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

Blogging is way more immediate and looks better all digital, but I kind of miss the analogue, lo-tech of zines in the 1990s. There was a "cult" element to them, you were either in the know or you weren't. There was very little in between.