On the Road with Martha Marcy May Marlene

Road trip! Yes, there’s a film review in here somewhere, but please enjoy the travelogue first.

For the Thanksgiving holiday, we at Weird Movie Village decided to take a break and drive from our corporate headquarters up to Morro Bay, a beautiful little seaside community about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

Just in case you don’t know, Morro Bay’s most distinguishing characteristic is a huge round rock jutting 576 feet out of the water just offshore. It’s one of the “nine sisters“: a series of rocks and/or hills that were formed by volcanic activity at least 20 million years ago, but the Bay’s rock is the only one that’s out in the ocean. It’s quite a striking sight. Morro Bay is also home to a small estuary where local species of fish and birds are able to thrive, and the rock is the protected home of the Peregrine Falcon. Quarrying gave it its distinctive round shape and the rocks were used to build the bay’s breakwater.

For Weird Movie Village, not only is Morro Bay a relatively close, relatively inexpensive getaway, it’s also home to one of the last single-screen, independently owned movie houses in California, the Bay. Sadly, it was closed for some minor refurbishments, but it was good to see that it’d be reopening in early December. The posters in the windows indicated that J. Edgar had been its last feature—or that it was coming up next. Can’t be sure, but I’m glad it’s still in business.

Anyhow, Thanksgiving Day in a small community can mean limited opportunities for entertainment. Once you’ve gone out to the rock, toured the Embarcadero, checked out the goofy aquarium (those Moray eels are scary!), jogged by the seashore and rented a bike for a sprint through town, you’re pretty much done.

Fortunately, we discovered an arthouse in nearby San Luis Obispo, the Palm Theatre. It was playing a film we’d wanted to see—Martha Marcy May Marlene, so off we went. On the way, and with time to kill, we were surprised and delighted to see a record store open on Morro Bay Boulevard, Vinyl Isle, so we stopped in for a browse.

Vinyl Isle is tiny but packed to the rafters with used and collectible records of all genres. We looked at the soundtracks and found a nice mono original of Mondo Cane and a stereo version of John Barry’s majestic score for The Lion In Winter. Another fun acquisition was Disneyland Records‘ 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.

A quick 20 minute drive and we were in San Luis Obispo. The theater was easy to find, located in the city’s tiny Chinatown. Clean and small, it consisted of three little auditoriums with real film projection, not video. And in 2004, it was outfitted with solar panels and the electricity sold to Pacific Gas and Electric rather than being fed directly into the theater, which allows it to continue operating during the stormy seasons.

Martha Marcy May Marlene—so named for its lead character’s many personalities, is a complex film. At first blush, I thought it was rather dull with a few moments of interest, but it’s one of those movies that creeps up on you. I’ve found myself thinking about it for the last couple of days, recalling scenes that make me say, “Oh, yeah! That’s why that happened!”

Elizabeth Olsen is amazing as the title character(s), a mysterious young woman who’s just escaped from a cult led by the creepily charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) and comes back to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Ironically, life with her sibling is as difficult as the one she’d just left, and she has trouble coping with normalcy after the physical and emotional abuse she’d just experienced.

Her life has been split in two: pre- and post-cult, and it causes her to behave rather oddly. When Ted suggests they take a swim in the lake, she nonchalantly takes off all of her clothes to her sister’s horror. And when she hears the sound of them making love in their bedroom, she wanders in and lies down next to them as if drawing some sort of comfort from their activity.

The soundtrack is subtly sinister—windblown leaves, falling stones and footsteps all bring back memories to Martha (who’s been renamed Marcy May by Patrick), and we get enough glimpses of her life there to allow us to put together the puzzle that causes her strangeness and paranoia.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a deliberately paced film that you’ll think about for days afterward. It’s an assured feature debut from Sean Durkin, who won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. Olsen, the younger sister of the “Full House” twins, is simply astonishing, and it’s unbelievable to realize that this is her first film role. Paulson’s character is frankly a bitch and she plays it that way. She’s an emotionless control freak, and it’s clear that she really doesn’t like her sister; she just feels that it is her duty to take care of her. A telling moment occurs when Martha learns that Lucy and Ted are trying to make a baby and she tells Lucy point-blank: “You’re going to be a terrible mother.” Dancy is wasted in a role that could have been played by anyone, which is a shame after his standout turn in Showtime’s “The Big C” this year.

Hawkes is good as Patrick, whose manipulation of his flock is quietly horrible, and Brady Corbet is also memorable as Watts, Patrick’s sadistic underling. What at first seems like a big open marriage, with all the female members available to the men for sex, abruptly takes on more sinister tones when the cult’s home invasion robberies escalate to murder, and we realize we’re seeing the beginnings of a Manson family.

And the final scene is absolutely chilling.

Durkin is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, and so is Olsen. Here’s hoping she continues to take the challenging roles and doesn’t end up a glassy-eyed fashion manque like her sisters, who ironically seem like cult members!

One thought on “On the Road with Martha Marcy May Marlene

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review. This film is definitely different in the way it tells its story and the story it’s trying to tell, and while that’s very much something to applaud, it just didn’t come together for me as well as it could have. Olsen and Hawkes were very good but overall, the film just didn’t do much for me as it did for others. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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