It had been a while since I’d been in an actual movie theater, and I was really looking forward to this film – Martha Marcy May Marlene. The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, a superb writer and a reliable judge of movies in my experience, had liked it quite a bit. He’d written:
Sean Durkin, writing and directing his first feature, has created a sombre and unsettling study of predators and their easily mastered prey….[The actor John] Hawkes presents a gaunt and gentle threat, not least when he croons a love song to the violated heroine, while [Elizabeth] Olsen is a beautiful paradox: an actress holding together a movie as a woman who is coming apart.
The movie had an 89 Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, and Netflix’s citizen raters gave it a 3.7 on a scale of 5 – between I Liked It (3) and I Liked It a Lot (4). One Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel, a “Top Critic” on Rotten Tomatoes, had this to say:
Olsen, in a captivating, career-making performance, makes Martha awkward and inscrutable, sexual yet innocent. From first scene to last, she makes the journey through all her moods and guises a mesmerizing and chilling experience and turns a cryptic film into an unforgettable one.
Sounds pretty good, huh?
It was a good 45 minutes into the movie before I allowed myself to think, Sitting here is like being forced to go to Sunday school to learn a lesson. This thought was quickly followed by its successor, This is bound to get better. But 66 minutes later as the screen went dark and the credits came up, I was asking myself, Where did this movie go wrong?
My wife’s comments were pithier. “That was like torture,” she said. “I don’t know why I allowed myself to sit through that. Who told you this was any good?
Well, Anthony Lane and Roger Moore and the Rotten Tomatoes critics and a bunch of Netflixers did.
Looking back, I realize I should have seen some warning signs. Lane’s phrasing – “a sombre and unsettling study of predators” and “an actress holding together a movie” – should have tipped me. And trouble lurks in Moore’s description “a cryptic film.” Sombre, trust me, is an understatement in describing this film.
I’m not one who finds movies about depressive characters depressing. I enjoy Hamlet. Bring on King Lear. As Aristotle suggested way back, tragedy – well done – is exhilarating. The problem for me is that Durkin seems willfully determined NOT to give the audience any of the usual movie-going pleasures.
When you watch this film, you think, Yes, that might be what it would be like to be a lost young girl who’s a member of a cultish pseudo-family, who then tries to escape, and whose head gets messed up because she can’t shake her cult experience. So Durkin gets some points for credibility, but a movie needs to be far more than credible.
Probably the closest thing to pleasure in this film for me was in the John Hawkes character, the head of the cult family who takes his pick of the girls lured into joining. Hawkes, who was excellent in a similar turn in Winter Bone,is very creepy here, a master of the quiet threat and sudden surprise, like the young Christopher Walken, before he turned into a cartoon. Hawkes gives us the tried-and-true pleasure of hating a villain, and the screen comes most alive in the scenes where he works his menacing.
The character Elizabeth Olsen plays – originally named Martha but dubbed Marcy May by Hawkes – never seems to develop beyond her near-catatonic shock, however. Where’s the character arc? Martha runs away from the Hawkes-led family and hides out with her married sister and brother-in-law, but she spends a lot of screen time curled in the fetal position – an apt correlative for her mental state, but hardly an engaging state for a protagonist.
The filmmaker’s sin is a confusion of technique and theme. If you want to show a girl losing her sanity in any form of art, you need to show her CLEARLY losing her sanity. If in the service of a worthy ideal – sticking to the protagonist’s point of view – you jumble reality and hallucinations together to the point where the audience doesn’t know which is which, you’ve lost me.
Ditto for depression. If you want to show a depressed protagonist, fine, but please make that depression interesting in some way. Much of the film plays like an extended version of those gray-tinted TV ads for Cymbalta.
So why did the critics like this film so much? I think I’ve seen this phenomenon before. My theory is that people who get paid to write movie reviews see so much Hollywood schlock that they develop an exaggerated appreciation for anything that breaks the usual commercial formulas. They’re suckers for the offbeat.
Tune in here Thursday for Part 2 – to see what specific tropes hook the critics for indie films and to quarrel with my list of Ten Egregiously Overrated Movies.