Martha Marcy May Marlene
Why is it that ambiguous endings inspire so much ire in audiences? Must everything be spelled out? If there's one place we can expect for a film to present an open-ended conclusion or a finale that insists that the characters' fates are linked to the imagination of the audience, it has to be indie cinema. After all, isn't the artistic point of making a movie outside the Hollywood system to break the rules, defy convention, and take risks?
Sean Durkin's confident debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, appears to adhere to that mindset. A moody, atmospheric study in paranoia and tension, Durkin channels the icy, unsettling dream state of Michael Haneke's work (Cache, The White Ribbon), offering up an evasive and elliptical narrative. And yet, despite his obvious skills as a filmmaker, there is a conventionality to his unconventional drama. By presenting the fractured and stylistic perspective of a young woman's inner turmoil, he's composed an astute portrait of psychological dissolution. But his movie is so submerged in ambiance and style that it ends up undermining the drama, so that by the time it reaches its inconclusive ending the choice feels more contrived than provocative.
Elizabeth Olsen (the 22-year-old younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley) plays Martha, a young woman who cut off all contact with her family after the death of her mother two years earlier. When we first meet her, she's on the run, fleeing a Catskill farmhouse in the early morning hours and calling her estranged sister Lucy ( a very good Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. Perplexed but supportive, Lucy and her new husband (Hugh Dancy) bring her to their gorgeous lakefront home in Connecticut and struggle to get Martha to come out of her shell. From here the film presents two intertwining timelines, the present, where traumatized Martha attempts to process what happened to her, and the past, where a radiantly hopeful Martha has fallen in with the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) and his followers (mostly attractive young women), a nurturing yet oddly manipulative cult. Rechristened Marcy Mae, Martha is at first charmed then disturbed by the behavior of her new "family." Unable to integrate into her sister's life, she vacillates between longing for her simpler life on the farm and intense fears over what the repercussions of her leaving might bring. Needless to say, this tension tests Lucy and Martha's relationship.
Durkin slowly pulls us into the world of the cult, allowing us to experience Martha's indoctrination as she does, ever so slightly tightening the vice as more and more sinister aspects reveal themselves. Olsen is a perfect vehicle for this, delivering a magnetic performance that's simultaneously haunted and haunting. Though she spends nearly half the film in a seemingly broken state of shock, there's a remarkably complex inner life churning beneath her blank expressions. Past and present live inside her, and her character never appears fully grounded in either. The script gives us far too little of who Martha actually is (or was) but Olsen, with her round, freckled face, soulful blue eyes, and easy sense of sarcasm, conveys deep layers of emotion as she drifts between memory and reality, often confusing which is which.
Durkin exhibits as assured a hand with his actors as he does with his camera. He has mastered the scope frame and effortlessly orchestrates an insidious and unnerving sense of portent. Even the bucolic is made foreboding. But as restrained, mysterious, and tense as Martha Marcy May Marlene is, after a while the movie begins to feel gimmicky. Durkin's dual plot threads are played with one note, at a single pitch, never quite harmonizing with one another. And though the story seems to be building to something meaningful, beyond a violent incident we can see coming from miles away, it reveals itself to be a two-hour tease.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.