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Martha Marcy May Marlene

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I can't decide if this looks good or just icky.

I'm going with "icky."

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Here's a reason to get excited about this film: An American film that premiered at Sundance has now also been programmed at Cannes, Toronto, and New York. I don't remember that ever happening. It's one of my most anticipated films at TIFF.

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A friend on Twitter just pointed out that Precious played at all four fests, so that takes a bit of the polish of the prize. Still, I think these two films are being praised for different reasons and in different ways.

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I saw an advanced screening of this last night in DC and I really liked it. The film has a very naturalistic feel and never takes the route a conventional thriller on this subject matter would take. Actually I'm not even sure I'd call it a thriller - although it is quite unnerving at times. It does a great job of integrating two timelines - Elisabeth's Olsen experience in the cult and the post-trauma she experiences after leaving. Olsen is very good in the film. I can't think of too many other films to use as a reference point. Winter's Bone comparisons have been made - which I guess are appropriate.

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I'm seeing it next Thursday, and I'm really looking forward to it. The director and Elizabeth Olsen will be there.

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They were supposed to be at the screening I attended but the little quake we had kept them away.

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Go see it.

I admire this film as much for what it doesn't do as for what it does. There are so many things I was almost certain would happen by the end, and none of them did, making this an altogether different, and better, movie than the trailer led me to anticipate.

But man, it's a rough ride.

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Lou Lumenick @ New York Post: "This piece of Oscar-baiting redneck porn created a sensation in Sundance because of Elizabeth Olsen's terrific performance as a runaway cult member. But it's a very bleak indie with some dramatic credibility issues. . . ."

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Lou Lumenick @ New York Post: "This piece of Oscar-baiting redneck porn created a sensation in Sundance because of Elizabeth Olsen's terrific performance as a runaway cult member. But it's a very bleak indie with some dramatic credibility issues. . . ."

Good lord. It's a very good movie, based on true testimonies about people recovering from experiences in cults.

I'm getting so tired of the abuse of the word porn.

Edited by Overstreet

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Overstreet wrote:

: Good lord. It's a very good movie, based on true testimonies about people recovering from experiences in cults.

So you didn't think the sister and her husband were "spectacularly insensitive stereotypes", or that the young women who sleep with the cult leader "all looked like Abercrombie models"?

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I thought the sister was the most believable human being in the film, and surprisingly caring and compassionate. I anticipated that they'd make her harsh and uncaring, and her warmth surprised me.

Insensitive stereotypes? It's a cult. Based on real cults. Seemed unnervingly persuasive to me.

The young women... well, some of them looked like they could have careers as models if they wanted to. (In a big-screen movie, they've cast young women who might be somewhat attractive! What is this world coming to! But some of the women in the cult/commune looked like mere survivors, even prison camp survivors.)

And honestly... Abercrombie models sometimes look more like prison camp survivors than Barbie dolls. Seems to be a style.

FWIW, this is currently at #1 on Mike D'Angelo's list for 2011 so far.

Edited by Overstreet

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Aw, crud. This film has been scheduled for the second week of the Vancouver film festival -- i.e. the week that my wife isn't staying home from work -- and it's showing twice: once at night on a Tuesday, which is the day my wife works late, and once during the day on a Friday, when my wife will also be at work.

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Well, it turns out I got to see this film on Tuesday after all -- and yeah, I rather liked it.

Question: Does anyone here share my friend's theory that the "cult" we see in all those flashback sequences is just something that Martha is hallucinating? He pointed to some interesting clues (including one that is embedded in the movie's very title), but I have to say I'd be a bit more inclined to agree with him *if* the film had not actually begun with Martha leaving the cult and dealing with a few of its members on her way out. Yes, the flashbacks do segue in and out of the rest of the film in a way that suggests we are experiencing the flow of Martha's thoughts, but that's not where the film STARTS: instead, it starts with what appears to be a fully grounded sequence in and near the "cult" itself.

BTW, I know the film isn't really ABOUT the cult -- it's about the ongoing contrast between a world with no boundaries and a world that actually has them -- but even so, it kind of bugged me that the cult feels very generic, for lack of a better word. Don't most cults have some sort of belief system or ideology or SOMEthing that they revolve around? You don't get much sense of what that might be, here, though, and without some detail in that direction, the "cult" scenes weren't as persuasive as they might have been. They weren't as GROUNDED as they could have been, to put it another way, and so they felt like more of an abstraction -- which may or may not lend itself to my friend's theory, I dunno.

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Mike D'Angelo:

that Martha never actually appears in this movie. She's dead before it begins.

literally. Just meant we never see her pre-cult; she's effectively Marlene (the public face for outsiders) w/sister.

Richard Brody @ New Yorker:

In his review in the magazine this week of Sean Durkin’s first feature, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which opens this Friday, Anthony Lane singles out for praise an aspect of the film that, to me, is one of its main flaws:

Drop by drop, our comprehension grows. Durkin measures out the vital details with great cunning; not for some time, for instance, do we gather that Martha has been out of touch for more than two years, or that her mother is dead, leaving [her sister] Lucy as the only haven to which she can now flee.

It’s exactly this canny dosing of information that makes it seem as if Durkin is pushing buttons—not ineffectively, but un-affectingly. By way of the movie’s flashback structure, the protagonist’s memories are delivered by eyedropper at exactly the moment that makes them register with a chill instead of following her patterns of thought. (The visual rhymes of the flashbacks are artifices that have little to do with the workings of the mind and everything to do with the elegant papering-over, via illustrations, of the script construction.) By holding back on what Martha knows and playing it out as what he’s willing to divulge, Durkin trades the potential depth of her dark and strange experiences for cheap, if clever, thrills. . . .

I hate to say such things about a film that’s based on a good idea and that’s made—and acted—with skill and care, but overall, though it evokes howling hollows of the soul, it reduces them to cups in a cinematic shell game.

Jeffrey Wells:

All the things that are eerily good about Martha Marcy May Marlene are still going to be there in front of paying audiences. Joe and Jane Schmoe are going to feel chilled and entranced by the last few minutes, but -- this is an important "but" -- they'll also be having a problem with it.

And they may, like me, feel a little frustrated with Olsen's Martha character, specifically her inability to do or say anything that might somehow alter or transform her situation. . . .

But she doesn't. She won't. She can't. And that pissed me off. Because it's not Martha who's keeping silent -- it's [writer-director] Sean Durkin.

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D'Angelo, after a second viewing, fights back against the nay-sayers (and I'm with him all the way):

Quite the backlash has since kicked in, but detractors have some confused ideas about what the film is trying (or should be trying) to do, somehow writing lengthy reviews that never mention post-traumatic stress disorder or deprogramming. Durkin doesn't employ match cuts and deliberately ambiguous visual syntax in order to draw some fatuous false equivalence between bourgeois society and a dangerous cult -- he's giving us the deeply disoriented psyche of someone for whom the recent past is still bleeding into the present. It's a psychological horror film in which the horror stems less from the subjugation, rape and murder seen in flashback than from the present-tense sight of a young woman permanently losing her mooring because she can't bring herself to ask for help. (How people can see the sister and her husband as villains, or even as unsympathetic, is beyond my comprehension. Such is the kneejerk assumption that wealthy = hideous, apparently. Makes for a nice subversion of expectations, but you're not supposed to cling to it until the bitter end, especially when the bitter end strongly implies that the refusal to answer the question "What happened to you?"

may get M's only family killed.)

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Well, that`s one way to read the `bitter end`. There`s also the possibility that MMMM is just paranoid. The fact that we never see any of the cult members that we had seen in the flashbacks is one of the things that led my colleague to suggest that all the cult stuff had never really happened, that MMMM was suffering from a major delusion. And while I think that`s too strong a reading -- like I said before, the way the opening scenes are staged incline me to believe that the cult really exists -- I do think the final scenes are pretty darn ambiguous at best. Perhaps TOO ambiguous.

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Well, that`s one way to read the `bitter end`. There`s also the possibility that MMMM is just paranoid. The fact that we never see any of the cult members that we had seen in the flashbacks is one of the things that led my colleague to suggest that all the cult stuff had never really happened, that MMMM was suffering from a major delusion. And while I think that`s too strong a reading -- like I said before, the way the opening scenes are staged incline me to believe that the cult really exists -- I do think the final scenes are pretty darn ambiguous at best. Perhaps TOO ambiguous.

I'm just gonna spoiler-tag this whole thing. There's no point in being coy.

Yeah, there's no way the cult is not real -- if it isn't, the movie is about absolutely nothing. What Martha is suffering from flashbacks and inability to distinguish past and present, not delusions per se.

As for the end, there's three times Martha freaks out upon seeing a man, thinking he's a cultist coming to get her -- the bartender, the man at the lakeshore, the man in a car that almost hits them as they drive her to the loony bin. The second and third man are the same. The first is not. Neither is seen in the cult-scenes flashback. What we're seeing at the end is simple paranoia, total mental collapse from PTSD or the like. To call Martha's recollections of men not reliable is being very kind indeed -- as the film goes on she becomes less and less able to tell apart her brother-in-law from the cult leader (the real point of the film's repeated parallellisms), despite the fact the two men couldn't be more unlike. The precipitating event for the couple's having her committed is when she kicks the husband down the stairs, as if fighting off the sexual advance from the cult leader she's remembering.

I told M d'A in person that it reminded me of a famous Hitchcock-directed episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the very first one, I learned later). A woman (Vera Miles) is assaulted/raped in her home; she tells her husband (Ralph Meeker) from their car "there's the man"; Meeker kills that man and they drive on; Miles sees another man and says "that's the man"; the episode closes with the two in the car, Meeker realizing his wife is insane and the police pulling up behind them.

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Saw this tonight at Nashville's independent theater, part of a "Wine and Film" event, meaning there was a much larger crowd there than normal, with this showing on one screen and Rebel Without a Cause showing on the other screen. The only thing I'll say, while I'm still processing it, is this is certainly the kind of film to see in a crowded theater. That collective gasp at the end of the film, similiar to the reaction people had to No Country for Old Men, made me glad I saw it with a crowd.

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I agree, Stephen. This is one where the crowd experience is well worth the ticket price.

My review goes up at Good Letters on Friday. Often, reviews feel like "Okay, that's what I could manage to say in the time/space permitted." This one feels like the kind of review I always hope to write. I don't know if it'll read any differently than others, but it was a rare occasion of having it all land on the page the way I hoped it would.

And it was also the rare experience of coming to admire the film the more I think, and write, about it. At this point, it's easily a top-fiver for the year for me.

Edited by Overstreet

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I loved so much about this film -- Elizabeth Olsen, especially -- but I think I'm somewhere in the Richard Brody camp. This probably says more about my tastes than about the film itself, but I was often too conscious of the mechanics of the script. For example, I don't think the sister and brother-in-law are just stereotypes, but they definitely hit a lot of familiar beats. The dinner table scene where MMMM insults Ted for his values and he gets deeply offended and sarcastic felt like a spike on some pre-drawn chart of narrative tension rather than recognizable human behavior. Durkin definitely surprised me with a couple great lines within the conventional scenes, though. "Just because we're sisters doesn't mean we have to talk about every thought that pops into your head" and "Lucy, you will be a terrible mother" both caught me totally off guard.

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So you didn't think the sister and her husband were "spectacularly insensitive stereotypes", or that the young women who sleep with the cult leader "all looked like Abercrombie models"?

This is nonsense. Go back and watch a few People's Temple videos. Attractive people are as susceptible to cult leader charisma as ugly people. Fancy that: attractive people also have deeply rooted spiritual issues... And for the record, they look far more like American Apparel models.

Question: Does anyone here share my friend's theory that the "cult" we see in all those flashback sequences is just something that Martha is hallucinating? He pointed to some interesting clues (including one that is embedded in the movie's very title)...

It is funny that you raise this, PTC, as the conversation about religion and the body that you started in relation to The Last Temptation of Christ is what immediately came to mind while watching this film.

American religious culture tends to distinguish between our bodies and our religious ideas, but this film does the opposite. It is very much about how religious experiences and communities affect not just the phsyical architecture of our brains and memories, but lead to direct physical responses - such as kicking people.

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