Martha Marcy May Marlene (****)

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" (Fox Searchlight)

The next time the suits in Hollywood get together, they should really sit down and have a good long talk about the sort of movies they are making for hundreds of millions of dollars.

SERIOUSLY.

Perhaps they will decide (when hell freezes over) that rather than spending $150 million on the next sequel to something stupid, or film of an old TV show, they might instead hand out $2 million to some aspiring filmmakers, directors, and writers who have made an impressive short or documentary or artists in the music video world.  Rather than one terrible film that cost $150 million, we would have seventy-five low budget films, at least half of which would be at the very least watchable, with some of them being very good.  The amounts of money wasted on bad movies these days is obscene when we have so many gifted directors and writers trying to get funding for their films to no avail. Not everyone can go the Kevin Smith credit card route (brilliant as it was), and frankly not everyone wants to do that. The studios simply must start looking for stories rather than only what the film is going to make for them. So much emphasis is placed on box office I fear the suits in Hollywood have forgotten what it is they are supposed to be doing.

Consider Robert Duvall’s plight in 1984-96. We have an Oscar winning and often nominated actor who has written an excellent script, has strong directors attached to it, and wants just $5 million dollars to get it made; by the 90’s, not a bad price for a film with a major actor. Yet none of the majors or smaller studios will touch the film because they believe religion is not box office. One of the cinema’s national treasures cannot get his film made because no one believes in him. So he reaches into his pocket and pays for the film himself, finally choosing to direct the picture himself. In the fall of 1997 The Apostle comes to the Toronto International Film Festival and 45 minutes into the film, the bidding for the picture had begun. By the end of the film, The Apostle was the hottest film of the festival, a film Miramax wanted, but eventually went to October Pictures. Duvall’s performance is arguably his finest, certainly one of the greatest male performances ever given and won awards for Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, before losing the Academy Award to Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (1997).

In these days of really bad superhero movies, sequels and movies as deep as the paper they have been written on, the independent film scene is where the great films seem to be emerging. Granted the studios make good movies here and there, but are they being fiscally responsible?

Martha Marcy May Marlene was a huge success at Sundance last January, the word of mouth quickly spreading through the film world that this film was something very special. Walking out of the screening at TIFF a few weeks ago, I was deeply moved by the film, angered by the content, and simply amazed at the performances within the film, in particular Elizabeth Olsen and the great John Hawkes.

Could Oscar come calling for Elizabeth Olsen's debut performance?

The film deals with a young woman’s escape from the cult that has her prisoner.  Martha (Olson) calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who has not spoken to the younger girl in two years, for help, and the family is re-united. But the young girl finds that coming back into society, into a family setting after a cult life is not as easy as she thought it would be. In a broken narrative, the director slips back and forth between the past and the present to allow us to see what happened to Martha and how the cult has impacted her life.

Patrick (John Hawkes), the charismatic leader of the cult, exerts control over Martha from the very beginning by renaming her, and through the course of the story we see him become more and more dangerous, moving from a dangerous sociopath to a murderous man ready to kill anyone who disagrees with him. Seeing Martha go through these experiences on the cult farm is very difficult to imagine, to watch, so one can only imagine what these people go through in actually living the situation. What Martha wants more than anything is somewhere to belong, and Patrick has a built in radar for this sort of thing and targets Martha the moment he lays eyes on her. Yet Patrick’s love comes at a price and through the film we see the women outnumber the men on the farm, they must not eat before the men, and are shared by the men sexually. They are second class citizens on the farm, and that is not what Martha was looking for. However she finds that the cult and its practices have a profound hold on her once she leaves and her behaviour is often socially inappropriate.

There have been some interesting films about life in a cult, better ones about breaking free of that life.  One of the best is the Canadian picture Ticket to Heaven (1981), which explored the de-programming ritual brilliantly. This new picture offers a deeper sort of study, much more psychological, with the sort of acting that may not be recognized for brilliant work right away because there is a lot of listening, observing going on, rather than huge dramatic moments. However if you never take your eyes off the characters, watching their every move, there is actually a great deal happening within, and the actors have the courage to portray them that way, rather than giving in to histrionics, which would have ruined the film.

Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation in the role of Martha. The younger sister of the corporation that is Mary Kate and Ashley, she is a major new talent who gives herself over, to the character and the film, in every possible way. Her work is courageous, real, and there is not a false note in her performance. We can see the confusion etched on her face, the sense that she knows not to trust Patrick, but what if he offers what she really needs and it’s the real thing? It is simply too good to pass up and she falls for it. Back in society she finds the struggle for her soul even greater because she is so entrenched in the ways of the cult and has let go of how to be herself, how to have fun, how to be who she was. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting that should land the young lady an Oscar nomination and place her in the running for more than a few critics awards.

John Hawkes hopes to score a second consecutive Best Supporting Actor nomination with his work in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

In the crucial role of Patrick, John Hawkes again demonstrates why he might be the finest character actor in American cinema right now. Formerly of HBO’s Deadwood, in which he was superb, as mild mannered hardware merchant Solo Starr, as well as an Oscar nominee last year for Winter’s Bone (2010), Hawkes is brilliant as Patrick, a dangerous man who innately knows how to control those struggling with their emotions, struggling to find a place where they might belong. He targets them, plays on their weaknesses, and draws them close to them to the point where they would do anything for him, and they do. Hawkes is astounding in the manner in which he portrays Patrick, not allowing us to see the deeply sinister man he is too soon, allowing the character to build until finally Martha sees him for what he is and recognizes that this cult is going to go to the dark side at some point because of Patrick’s controlling manner. There is something very dark in Hawkes’ eyes, something threatening even when he is not angry, something that says…walk away.  No question Hawkes should be an Oscar nominee again this year, and at this writing this is the best performance in the supporting category I have seen this year.

The rest of the cast support the performances of Olsen and Hawkes but the film feels for all the world like a finely tuned ensemble. Sean Durkin bravely takes his time with the story, does not identify past and present, which means you are forced to pay attention, and challenges his audience to go on a very demanding journey with him. The director knows that he does not have chases or explosions for the film, because he is telling a story, a very strong and powerful story, and he’s got all he needs in the screenplay, actors and audience. Look for an ending that is a stunner.

It’s powerful stuff, and one of the year’s very best movies.