Identity: as the world comes to an end, it’s the primary thing we hold onto the most, even if we’re only subconsciously thinking about it. As part of what seems to be a cultural zeitgeist, the films of 2011 have tapped into the notion of what happens to one’s identity when faced with great inner or outer turmoil. The stresses that induce a reshaping of one’s identity include a decaying mental state (Take Shelter, The Skin I Live In), their livelihood (The Ides of March, Jane Eyre) or their very existence (Melancholia, The Tree of Life).
With Martha Marcy May Marlene, identity is shaped through a sense of belonging. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is her birthname; Marcy May is the name bestowed upon her like a crown by a convincing and conniving commune leader named Patrick (John Hawkes); Marlene is the name she uses when picking up the phone. The three names represent a specific time; moments glimmer with either a sense of anguish and humanity as Martha, or Marcy May, or even Marlene threads through life.
Sean Durkin’s clever script and direction is successful for the perpetual sense of dread it manages to maintain. Whereas some films may buckle under the stress of this sort of narrative arch, Martha Marcy May Marlene moves between realities and dreams in a convincing and lucid way. The film is sharply constructed and even more sharply edited – as Martha reconciles differences with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), we cut to an equally emotionally trying moment for Marcy May as she contends with life in a Manson-esque cooperative.
Whereas films of this sort tend to hide its mystery, Martha Marcy May Marlene is fairly straightforward in how it approaches its audience. The big why behind Martha’s departure from the commune and growing insanity is obvious from the onset; it’s the stacked deck against Martha makes her the sort of character that can be sympathized. The whole film can thread on being an exercise in miserablism, but it’s the fact that Durkin instills a cloud of anxiety over the proceedings that makes it more than what it could have been. It’s a haunting film, in so much that it does invoke a sense of fear. The fact that so much of this fear is internalized in Elizabeth Olsen’s tender features makes it even more engrossing; Olsen’s facial and bodily dexterity is truly astonishing, as Durkin can give her the look of unprecedented strength and yet rob her of that with a shot that bares a striking similarity to something from Nabokov’s Lolita.
With an impeccable lead performance in Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes’ best performance to date, and a strong directorial and screenplay debut from Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those rare films that leaves you with the best of first impressions and lingers; I know I looked into my rear view mirror a little more than usual on my way back home.