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It’s rare that a movie puts you into the mindset of its protagonist the way that Elizabeth Olsen’s performance does in Sean Durkin’s surprising “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (that’s a mouthful, innit?). Even though she’s the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth looks more like a younger version of Vera Farmiga than either of her factory-made sisters. Seeing this excellent performance by the less-famous Olsen sister seems like the time I spent being tortured by my sisters’ ad nauseum playing of the VHS tapes of “Brother for Sale” and “How the West Was Fun” when I was a kid has finally paid off.
The less you know about “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the better, but I’ll let the skeleton slip for the curious. Olsen plays a young woman named Martha who escapes from a strange cult and manages to reconnect with her sister (Sarah Paulson). Martha temporarily moves in with her sister and her sister’s husband (Hugh Dancy). Olsen’s character then attempts to assimilate into the world her sister has provided for her, but the looming specter of her recent past begins to taint her grip on reality. That starts to cramp the lifestyle her sister’s family had before their unexpected visitor arrived.
The brilliance of Durkin’s handling of the material is that the film is told in a fractured narrative that reflects the mindset of its lead. The movie shifts between her time in the cult, and her time at her sister’s home, and as the narrative progresses, the grip on reality slips as paranoia slowly creeps in and takes over.
Her time in the cult is dominated by the presence of Patrick (John Hawkes), the group’s mysterious and devilishly manipulative leader. Like any fraudulent messiah, Patrick is charismatic and can turn on the warmth at the flick of a switch to disarm his would-be followers. Even though Martha has found her way out of the depraved lifestyle she was caught up in, the mind games Patrick played have brought a cloud upon her perspective. Not even the comfortable, upper-class setting she’s found herself in can bring her respite, making for explosive drama as her family has to deal with it.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” resides at number one on Christian Toto’s top ten of 2011, and with good reason, as it is certainly one of the finest films of last year. Innovative in its approach, it tells a frightening and compelling story in a deceptively complex manner that allows you to get close to a character in a way that few movies are able to achieve. Durkin’s feature debut has announced two talents worth keeping up with in the future, the gifted Olsen and Durkin himself.
Other Noteworthy Releases
Puss in Boots: More celebrity voices coming out of CGI animals that make pop culture references! It seems the “Shrek” franchise will never just shut up and die.
J. Edgar: My buddy and fellow Parcbencher Greg Victor efficiently eviscerated Clint Eastwood’s latest exercise in mediocrity as a director. Eastwood’s work as a movie star has made him an American icon, but his status as such seems to have earned him a pass when he gets behind the camera and makes dull movies like this. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover, like so many of his “performances,” is one where you can see the acting cogs clicking away in his brain.
Tower Heist: While Brett Ratner is a director who happens to be piggy and a hack, the prospect of Eddie Murphy returning to non-family oriented comedies where he belongs intrigues me.
The Way: Emilio Estevez directs his old man in this film, which found a strong following from a faith-based audience.
Anatomy of a Murder: Criterion is releasing a deluxe edition of Otto Preminger’s classic starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and the recently-late, great Ben Gazzara. The cover art wisely keeps the iconic elements of the original poster in-tact.
World on a Wire: A made-for-TV sci-fi film by insanely prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder that was recently unearthed and is being given a release with all the Criterion bells n’ whistles.
Fort Apache: The undeniably awesome team of John Ford, John Wayne and Henry Fonda made this film which also features Shirley Temple. It’s one of the holes in my essential-viewing of Ford’s work, and it coming to Blu-ray means it’s high-time for me to catch up.
London Boulevard: A gangster flick starring Colin Farrell, Kiera Knightley, and Ray Winstone, directed by William Monahan, the screenwriter behind films like The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven. I’d be interested if Monahan was a screenwriter whose work intrigued me, but his original work is smug and boring, and his adapted work is only decent because it’s built on the backs of other work by writers who are better than he is.
Unforgiven: One of Eastwood’s better films as a director, but any time he’s in front of the camera, I’m happy. I’d rather watch it every day of the week than “J. Edgar,” maybe it’s because Eastwood’s natural greatness as a screen presence is the complete opposite of DiCaprio’s constant struggle to become something even remotely resembling masculine.
Available on Blu-ray
I Ain’t Scared of You – A Tribute to Bernie Mac: I worked on Bernie Mac’s final film, “Soul Men,” when it shot a few scenes in Memphis. When they were gearing up to film on Beale Street, we were told that when choosing for an appropriate place for Mac and Samuel L. Jackson to cool down between set-ups, it had to be a place that didn’t have stairs, because of Mac’s health issues. He and Isaac Hayes were both in “Soul Men,” and they both passed soon after it wrapped. A terrible loss for both comedy and music.
Available on DVD
This post originally appeared over at Parcbench