Imbued with a compelling central performance, a well judged approach to camera direction and the haunting folk songs of Jackson C. Frank, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a desolate film that resonates with a profound sense of mood. Debut feature director Sean Durkin uses dual narratives to tell the tale of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), an impressionable young woman who joins a commune, only to escape into her sister’s care having experienced something terrible. What will happen when she returns to normality is entirely unpredictable.
Seemingly beginning the film at the end of the story (when Martha leaves the commune), writer/director Durkin could have fallen into the trap of having a story with no momentum, but he deceptively uses this end point as a starting point for a new leg of the story, while narrating in flash back the events in the commune. As the present narrative develops we become more and more engaged in the flashbacks, creating a dual level of interest.
Constantly keeping the audience in suspense of two narratives Durkin allows Elizabeth Olsen to perform an extremely rounded and complex portrait of her character. Upon arriving at the commune Martha is convincing portrayed as a lively, yet impressionable young woman. The leader of the communal group, Patrick (John Hawkes) convinces her that those in her past were responsible for causing her emotional harm. Unknowing to her Patrick is actually drawing her into a downward spiral which causes greater damage than she can imagine.
Durkin transitions from scenes of the past and present by subtly intercutting the narrative as if sliding in and out of a dream. He exhibits a superb control over pacing for each scene and his use of slow dolly shots and long lens camera work creates a detachment from the ordinary world and its conventions. The camera also takes on a significantly psychological influence on the story as Martha finds herself confused between what she may have dreamed and what may have happened at the commune. This happens as her influence on her sister’s life becomes increasingly burdensome.
Durkin’s choice of music gives the film one final kick and this manages to ingrain the film deeply in the audience’s memory and emotions. Durkin had John Hawkes learn Marcy’s Song by near-mythic folk artist Jackson C. Frank for a scene that becomes the centre point of Martha and Patrick’s relationship. Hawkes makes this song entirely his own and the song feels as if it were written specifically for the movie (only several decades early). It is the perfect compliment to the story, performances and overall filmic style.
Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a film where all the elements fit correctly. This is down to Durkin’s superb directing skills which were honed making short films and music videos, while producing low budget features. It would be entirely unfair to say that this film feels like a result of luck – Durkin and his company Borderline Films have established themselves with an impressive background of work and Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a culmination of this so far. What they produce next will no doubt be hotly anticipated, as will Elizabeth Olson’s next acting move. In years to come this film deserves to become a true classic of the American independent cinema.