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New Release Review - Martha Marcy May Marlene


Directed by: Sean Durkin
Starring: John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Two exciting new talents explode onto the screen in what could be the best American movie of the twenty-first century.
Regular readers of the site may think I don't like movies very much due to the poor reviews I give most new releases. The truth is the vast majority of what I consider great films were made before 1982, by film-makers who are either dead, have sold out, or have simply lost their talent. Looking at the year ahead there's simply nothing that gets me excited, I couldn't care less what the Coen brothers next movie will be, I have zero interest in the latest round of superhero movies. It often feels like movies just aren't made for me anymore. Until now.
This movie is a throwback to the independent American horrors of the seventies, made with a youthful brashness but also with a reverence and understanding of the history of cinema. While being one of the most original films for many a year, it finds time to reference movies like "Halloween", "Nashville", "Once Upon A Time In The West", "Marnie", "Leave Her To Heaven", "Blue Velvet" and "Shadow Of A Doubt". Unlike Tarantino and Hazanavicius, Durkin's obvious love of cinema never comes across as a lecture, the references are purely visual, and he certainly doesn't need to steal from another film's soundtrack.
To me the mark of a great director is economy, they should be able to make their point as quickly, simply, and quietly as possible. At the start of this we have a scene establishing the cult that Olsen later flees from. We see the male members eating a meal at a large table, then we cut to the females standing patiently in the kitchen, and cut again to the table where the females have now taken their place. With three shots, two cuts, and zero dialogue, in about twenty seconds Durkin tells us more about the group dynamic than some modern directors would convey in a half hour of pointless editing, strained camera moves, and clunky exposition. He uses the widescreen frame to create tension in a way I haven't seen since the heyday of John Carpenter. If you didn't know better you would swear this and "Halloween" were made by the same person. Like Carpenter, he intercuts between wide shots and tight close-ups to keep us in a state of paranoia. When the screen is full of empty space we worry about who might enter the frame, when all we can see is Olsen's face we worry about what might be lurking offscreen.
The real genius of Durkin is that he exploits our expectations of the suspense genre but never gives in to them, the viewer is often allowed to fill in the blanks with our own ideas and prejudices. When you're dealing with a character who is ultra charismatic it can often be a problem. What if the audience don't find Hawkes convincing as someone who could seduce people to follow every whim? Durkin wisely chooses to start his story after that point, Hawkes is already in control and we can form our own theories as to how he got there. The last time I saw a debut this assured was Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" all the way back in '98. Hopefully Durkin will have a better career than Gallo though.
If it wasn't enough for one exciting talent to emerge from this, we also get Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the infamous twins. Her performance is one of the most natural I've seen from any actress, of any age, she's realistically disturbed without resorting to hysterics. I just hope she sticks to her guns and doesn't get sucked into the romantic comedy vacuum.
The American release of this qualifies it for Oscar contention and it's snubbing is nothing short of a disgrace. If this doesn't end up as my favourite film of 2012 then it will have been one hell of a year.
9/10
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) on IMDb 7.0/10

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