In recent years, there has been a steady departure in cinematic norms. Much like the advent of "post rock" within the realm of music, our generation has adopted a new means of telling stories with celluloid. Instead of simply labeling a film with a title of "horror", "action", or "romance", many an indie film is now stressing a blending of genres and styles which place it inside a categorically vague realm. As if trying to make a statement against a voiceless oppressor, this "post" form of cinema has become all the more common in recent months. While I applaud many a filmmaker's refusal to "play by the rules", that they might tell their story HOW they want to (like BELLFLOWER), other directors have utilized such a genus for obnoxiously pretentious purposes; carving out compositions which feel forced, awkward and incomplete (like SEPTIEN). MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is one of the newer additions to this canon, a film which has a good deal of potential, but would rather coast by on its own ostentatious hype than truly make something special of itself.
Before MMMM (far easier to say than the whole title, eh?) arrived on the potential Oscar hit-list, I had hoped to see what all of the acclamations were about. How intense a film it was, how psychologically thrilling it was, how daring a performance Elizabeth Olsen delivered, how yadda, yadda, yadda. . . Really, I just wanted to see a creepy backwoods flick as the synopsis sounded right up my alley; the critical praise simply being a cherry on the top of such a potentially emotionally draining experience. Sadly, what I received was not a chocolate-covered sundae, but a sloppy-joe cooked by Harmony Korine.
While I found MMMM to be nothing short of a disappointment, it did raise my brow for many a right reason. Firstly, the fragmented structure of storytelling made for a far more engrossing experience as the jarring edits which flash to-and-fro depict a woman who has escaped from her physical bonds, but not her mental ones. This technique worked in grabbing my attention and posed a compelling psychological element to a rather vapid script. Shot composition is also well-handled and offers an unbiased, yet sustained take on the narrative's events, which allows the film to flow at a solemn pace and never directly state how the viewer should be feeling about any given scene.
However. . .
All of the good that stems from such a disturbing plot is completely undone by its incompleteness. The entire endeavor ends in the most lividly forgettable way possible, the cast is comprised of unlikeable characters and self-indulgent shots often rear their heads and fail to progress the picture in any way.
First off, let me summarize the story in lamens terms: Stupid women doing stupid things with stupid guys. After leaving the malicious folds of a misogynistic cult, Marcy (Elizabeth Olsen) contacts her older sister as she has nowhere else to go. From here, Marcy undergoes relapse after relapse as she tries to undo two years worth of weak-minded stupidity caused by the aforementioned cult. Hints of something far more sinister begin to play into the narrative, but as I mentioned, the story is incomplete. Thus, just as the film treads into, "gettin' good" territory, it pulls a DEVIL INSIDE and cuts the snake off at the head. 90% of the movie consists of Elizabeth Olsen sulking about with a facial expression just shy of a smile. Yes, she performs well, but so would any other actress placed into the shoes of such a character. Critics have lauded her acting abilities, but herein, her character is honestly NEVER given an opportunity to do anything. She cries some here, blurts out a wince-inducing line of hippie pretension there and, as if in deep-thought, stares off into the distance a fair amount. Never once does her character grow. She remains the same coward she begins the film as. Really, there isn't a single likeable trait about her as she serves far more a villain than someone to root for. She's weak and retains next to no mental conviction, she's unwilling to understand those trying to help her nor confess to them the horrors she's undergone, she's an accomplice to murder, she's assists in the raping of young women and has no moral fiber about anything she does. Had her character been that of a teenager or even pre-teen, I might have been able to buy into the factor of Stockholm Syndrome and simply "wanting to belong". However, she's not a child. She's not a teenager. She's a full-grown woman capable of making her own choices and actively chooses to take part in both the cult and its reprehensible acts. In this two-year time frame, she reverts to a cave-woman-esque form. She pisses herself and forces the urine-soaked clothing under beds; she crawls into people's beds as they're doing the horizontal bop and simply lies there--like an emotionless robot. Initially I empathized; I believed her deserving of sympathy, as the film went on however, her true colors were shown just as brightly as her unwillingness to better herself. Brainwashing my ass. I can only suspend my disbelief for so long, especially when said character--again--purposefully gave into ill temptation even after she learned of her cult's wicked intentions. Many can lift up such a character and the woman performing her, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, people.
There's a welcome lack of dialogue and bluntness to MMMM, as well as a loving touch of subtlety, but none of it is executed in a way so as to make the entire work feel memorable. Conversations are relegated to arguments and verbal attacks and by the sudden cut to black, not a single ounce of closure is offered to any single piece of the puzzle. With the appearance of the ends credits, all I could muster was a raised brow and a, "That's it? REALLY?"
Akin to WINTER'S BONE, MMMM is an atmospheric but empty experience. Its lack of depth and character is cloaked by star power and an inability to walk its talk. For those wanting a similar adventure of cults and the young women they set their sights on, check out LEFT BANK, as--while somewhat flawed--offers a similar pacing, visual palette and performance from its lead. The biggest difference however being that it offers a fully unnerving psychological narrative, one with a brief, albeit terrifying climax.
MMMM contains flourishes of novelty as well as a hopeful future for its first time director T. Sean Durkin, but as a whole, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a missed opportunity as it was crafted as an Oscar contender first; a full-fledged character-study and narrative, second.