Tag Archives: John Hawkes

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The gripping Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those films that makes you want to rush out and urge everyone in sight to see it as soon as possible. I felt the same way about Winter’s Bone in 2010, and MMMM ticks some of the same boxes: an American indie centred around an incredible performance by a young actress I’d never previously heard of, with a great supporting turn by John Hawkes. But the film is very much its own beast.

The film opens with Martha – aka Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) – slipping away from a small country farm where, we learn, she has been living for a couple of years. Apparently terrified, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to collect her. Once back at the home Lucy shares with her husband (Hugh Dancy), Martha tries to settle in; refusing to discuss where she’s been or what has happened to her, it’s only gradually that they, and we, register how deeply traumatised she actually is.

This truth is revealed in part through a series of flashbacks to Martha’s time with the cult, which is presided over by the charismatic but evil Patrick (Hawkes). The situation so far is not unfamiliar if you’ve seen other films about Manson-inspired cult leaders (sure enough, the trailer reorders them into chronological order, making the film appear much more of a conventional thriller than it actually is). Plenty of horror films have taken the same basic premise, though the horror in MMMM is psychological rather than the more graphic horrors of, say, Kevin Smith’s Red State. Writer/director Sean Durkin constructs his film so that as the flashbacks become increasingly disturbing to watch, so Martha’s behaviour becomes more and more unpredictable. Starting out as merely odd – she sleeps curled on the edge of her bed, goes swimming naked and is surprised that anyone might be shocked – by the end she has become completely paranoid, barely able to tell what is real and what isn’t.

It’s a shame that Hugh Dancy’s character is a rather two dimensional yuppie, as it weakens some sections of the film. Martha critiques his materialistic lifestyle, pointing out that there are other ways to live. If the intention is to suggest that modern capitalistic enslaves people just as much as crazy cult leaders in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t quite come off. But it’s a minor problem.

Olsen is superb in the lead role, and deserves award recognition. As her mental state deteriorates, we are ultimately sucked entirely into her fractured world view. The way the film ends will not be liked by all. I’ve heard it compared to the ending of the recent Take Shelter, which I felt was entirely different, and more accurately to John Sayles’ Limbo. All I can say is that it worked for me, and the final scenes had my stomach in knots. This riveting film is a triumph for both Durkin and Olsen.

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Winter’s Bone


Winter’s Bone

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, of whom I was previously unaware but intend to check out in the near future, Debra Granik’s engrossing, immersive thriller is my clear favourite of the Festival. A dark drama that convincingly depicts a rural, poverty blighted society normally only seen as monsters in horror films, it also features a remarkable lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

Lawrence plays Ree Jolly, a 17 year old girl who – already responsible for her frail mother and two younger siblings – is told that her drug-dealing father has put their home up as security on his bail bond. Currently missing, he needs to show up for his court hearing or the family will be made homeless. Ree is obliged to undertake a dangerous quest to track him down – dead or alive.

In this desolate mountain town, drug addiction is endemic and drug dealing seems to be the major industry and source of income. The people involved, whose identities seem to be at best an open secret, are less than pleased to have Ree asking questions, and it soon starts to look as though she may the next to go mysteriously missing.

Watching the film, you can’t help but become angry that this young woman – who is demonstrably loyal, brave, occasionally droll – should be obliged to shoulder this kind of responsibility, even outside of the thriller plot. Looking at the older women in the film you see her likely future, and it’s infuriating. In a way, one of the most distressing scenes has Ree teaching her little brother how to shoot – distressing both because seeing small children handle weapons feels wrong, but also because you understand the lesson is actually necessary just so the family can continue to eat.

The supporting cast features a seamless blend of local people alongside more familiar faces like Deadwood’s John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt and Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee. All contribute to the feeling that this is a window onto a very real, specific world, one rarely explored in cinema. It’s being released in the UK in September by Artificial Eye, and comes hugely recommended.