Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I’ve left it a little too long since I saw this film to write an effective review, but if there’s anything I want to get across it’s how I really liked the way the atmosphere is handled by first-time director Sean Durkin. In fact, both the director and his lead actor, Elizabeth Olsen, are new to me and they certainly make their presence welcome. The film deals with rather fragile themes: a woman struggles away from a wilderness encampment to call her sister, and it slowly unfolds that she’d been inducted into a cult and must deal with years of conditioning that have removed certain inhibitions just as they’ve implanted paranoid suspicion. The title reinforces this in so far as Olsen is playing a young woman named Martha, who has been given the name Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and who further subsumes her identity — as do all the female members of the cult — into that of ‘Marlene’ so far as the outside world is concerned.

Olsen brilliantly handles the fraught range of emotions her character Martha must go through, both in the framing story of her relations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and in flashback scenes set at the cult. John Hawkes, too, is a wonderfully underrated actor who makes a real mark here as a very subtly creepy and controlling presence, and Hawkes is one of those rare actors whom I’ve seen do both extremes of good-guy and bad-guy characters and pull them off with equal conviction, which is possibly the best kind of background to have to really convince as someone whose shadiness must be tempered with some believable charisma.

The filmmaking heightens a slow-building tension through making good use of long shots in the scenes at Lucy’s secluded home, which open up the landscape around Martha and place her as often a small figure against the wilderness where the threat from the cult still lurks for her (and still casts an odd attraction). The flashback scenes also hint at some of the controlling methods used by Patrick and the group over the women, and combine with Martha’s actions when back in the care of her sister, to suggest a much darker and more disturbing life that she has escaped. Whether she really gets free of these influences is never quite resolved by the film, leaving the question of her rehabilitation hanging.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very confidently crafted film that introduces a number of excellent new filmmakers. It fits in the same kind of darkly ambiguous psychological territory as Night Moves (indeed, as many of Kelly Reichardt’s films), so I can only look forward to further films from Durkin (as director) and Olsen (as actor).

Martha Marcy May Marlene film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sean Durkin; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 28 November 2013.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

One of things I like about movies is that they take me places I’d never otherwise visit, and set their stories amongst people I’d never otherwise meet. I can’t say how accurate this depiction is of the Ozarks (a mountainous area roughly in the centre of the United States), but it certainly feels close to the bone, and has an excellent control over its atmosphere.

This is a hard-edged world where people are wary of one another and resort to desperate means to make ends meet. The film is best when it’s setting out the elaborate rituals that people in this part of the world follow; in many ways, it is these that motivate the entire drama. Just in visiting her friend’s home, Jennifer Lawrence’s character Dolly must ask her friend’s husband for permission to enter, and this overly-polite pas de deux is repeated on several occasions. Even the police officers approach others with caution, though that may partly be that Dolly’s uncle ‘Teardrop’ (John Hawkes) is somewhat unhinged. These are, relatively-speaking, the ‘good guys’ though; when Dolly comes up against the really dangerous characters, she comes out rather the worse for it. And again, there appear to be delicate issues of etiquette even around violence: it’s the female family members of local kingpin ‘Thump’ Milton who dole out the punishment for Dolly’s transgressions.

These transgressions are all deviations from an unspoken code, for Dolly is asking difficult questions about her absent father, whose disappearance has put their home under threat. It turns out her father was involved in the production of crystal meth, which had brought him into conflict with not just the law (he was on bail, and his home was his collateral), but the local thugs. Dolly’s mother is certainly not equal to the task of raising her children, suffering from some unspoken mental illness (presumably depression), and Dolly is only just clinging on. Her search for her father is not so much out of affection for him (she has no expectations that he’s alive) but so that the family can avoid eviction, and in her search she calls on family kinship with the other townsfolk — clearly this is one of her transgressions: you can see in the faces of the people she asks that they cannot refuse these ties, but will exact a punishment for Dolly’s invoking them.

This points to one of the great strengths of the film, which is its unshowy but beautifully controlled acting performances. John Hawkes, in particular, shines as ‘Teardrop’, a tightly-coiled crystal meth-snorting character, who very rarely does anything violent, but manages to give off the constant impression that he might snap at any point. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who carries the film, being in just about every scene, and she excels at what is a film of small details, almost subliminal at time, building to a denouement which avoids southern gothic clichés or a forced showdown (of the kind as seen in, for example, Mud), but which is in many ways just as painful.

Of course, one of the dangers in depicting this kind of milieu is of falling into poverty tourism — parading the deprivations and misery endured by one group of people to allow those of us more fortunate to feel smugly superior — but I don’t get this impression from Winter’s Bone. The rural setting is treated without any overt (hillbilly) stereotyping, and if the characters are enduring tough times, it’s not something that the filmmakers linger over. There’s none of the kind of sneering at accents or backwards ways that you might get in, say, a Coen Brothers film: this inhabits a quite different world.

In its unflashy way, this is an exemplary American film with some excellent and convincing performances. It has the kind of attentiveness to details that you’d get in a police procedural, which in a way this bears some relationship to, if only because the police seem to be outsiders to this world and therefore little regarded. And though it has a bleakness to it, it’s not one that overwhelms the film. One gets the sense that Dolly at least may yet prevail where those around her have not.

Winter's Bone film posterCREDITS
Director Debra Granik; Writers Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 16 July 2013.