Borderline films is made up of three directors who take turns producing each other’s projects, they opened for business in 2008 with Antonio Campos’ Afterschool (who returns later this year with Simon Killer). As a collective they have a lot of acclaim from the indie capital of film festivals – Sundance – seen as much of a derogatory endorsement as a positive one, in certain cynical points of view. The latest project from the Borderline collective to see the daylight of the UK release schedule is Sean Durkin’s shrewdly titled tongue twister of a gothic western Martha Marcy May Marlene.
MMMM stars Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famous Olsen sisters) and John Hawkes. Olsen stars as Martha who runs away for from home for two years to live with a collective of young men and woman under the tutelage of Hawkes’ Patrick who christens her Marcy May to sever the ties with her old life. In the opening minutes, Martha runs away from what appears to be an unassuming farm only to be pursued by an intense young man, shaken from this confrontation, she phones her sister and escapes. With her new found freedom, Martha stays with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulsen), and her husband at his holiday home.
The farm from which she escaped was home to a cult that abused emotionally fragile teenage girls with a program of sex and song, as sung with calculated intent by John Hawkes. The affect Patrick has on Martha is colossal, helped in huge part by an equally brooding performance by John Hawkes as an enigmatic man with an underlying ferocity belied by a nature that never shifts from sedate. Martha suggests the power of her ‘ex-boyfriend’ when she asks her sister whether she has ever had difficulty in determining the difference between the now, memories and dreams and the construction of Durkin’s film reverberates this with a consummately written approach to scrambled narrative structure. As the viewer, we don’t know whether what we are seeing is real or in Martha’s head.
Credit has to be given where is due, with sex, music and the frailty grasp on reality playing as pivotal themes it wouldn’t be unexpected for MMMM to be an exploitation feature. Durkin dodges this fate is thanks to the strength of his storytelling, allowing ideas and character background to be implied rather than implicit allowing the actors to impose meaning through their performances. That sort of ambiguity is a huge turn off for many and it’s understandable, people want a story to be told directly and wrapped up in a clearly defined manner, this is an art-house film with an ambiguity that might not be welcome but it is impossible to ignore.
Art house or not, this is an utterly absorbing project thanks to the craft of all involved. The editing by Zachary Stuart Pontier and cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes are two standout traits. Pontier seamlessly blends together the disparate threads of consciousness playing up the confusion of the scenario, it requires subtlety to make such a premise convincing and he gives it his everything. The cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes gives MMMM a feel akin to fellow anti-westerns in Meeks Cutoff & Winters Bone, with its static shots and vast panoramic visuals. Lipes frames the film beautifully, with subdued pastel colour pallet that gives a haunting minimalism that reveals as much about Martha’s state of mind as the hugely confident breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen.
What a performance it is too, with a confidence beyond that of an actress in her debut feature, Olsen attacks the role with nuance and psychicality. To see her in press photos she barely looks like the same person who played Martha, she has the gaunt expression of someone being pulled in numerous directions. Her virtuoso performance bounces between a variety of emotions from naïve to emotionally damaged and confident in her skin to unbalanced, her range displays an emerging talent which hasn’t been seen since the turn of the 21st century.
Director Sean Durkin like his star Elizabeth Olsen has boldly announced his arrival to the world of cinema. His multi-layered and intelligently structured gothic western with its narrative that bounces around leaving the audience in a state of confusion might not be accessible to all. It might all be too ambiguous, a fact stressed at no greater point than the ending, which just ends without even hinting at a resolution. However, those who embrace Martha Marcy May Marlene will be met by one of the best directorial débuts in recent memory.