(USA, 2010, 103 minutes)
Directed by: Sean Burkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Hugh Dancy, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson
This unnerving, at times frustrating, but consistently mesmerizing psychological drama/character study comes to TIFF’s “Special Presentations” with a high pedigree—it won Best Director at Sundance and its leading lady has been eliciting quite the coronation. The AM press screening I attended was curiously under populated considering it was Day One and the film’s almost universal critical hosannas since it debuted out of competition at Cannes—maybe I was the only guy in a name tag who didn’t go to Utah this year?
The film works its weirdly bewitching, ambient pull from its opening shots in a remote farmhouse, offering little by way of crops and livestock outside but inside, a group of a half dozen young women sleep on squalid mattresses. They awake to prepare meals for an equal number of young men, who then eat alone by lamplight. After they clear out, the women are allowed to do the same…in silence. The next morning, one of the women slips out and breaks into a mad dash into the woods. She’s soon pursued by one of the men (Abbott), who tracks her down at a diner in town. We learn her name is Mary. In the safety of public view, she refuses his plea to return to the farm and he relents. For now. Mary then calls her sister for help, and confesses in a panic that she doesn’t even know where she is.
Mary moves in with Lucy (Paulson) and her smug husband Ted (Dancy) who clearly isn’t too pleased with the arrangement. Their parents gone, Lucy is Mary’s only family and friend beyond the cult she’s just fled. She’s been missing for two years, but is reluctant to speak of her experiences. In harrowing flashbacks, we see how a small group of men and women have fallen under spell of charismatic Patrick (Hawkes), who basically runs a sex cult in the Catskills for young men to prey on even younger woman under the auspices of starting an agricultural commune where the women do all of the work—one, a new recruit, is barely into her teens. While not terribly explicit visually, you’ll have a hard time holding back your gag reflex when the criminally young girl, clad only in a robe and captive in an attic, awaits the arrival of Patrick for her “initiation”.
The flashback structure works to disorient and simulate something of Mary’s fractured mental state. They aren’t always chronological, which makes one sequence doubly-frightening, when we think some of the cult members are coming to the house to take Mary back until we learn it’s in fact another similar lake house that they intended to rob when Mary was still a member.
Throughout I had this nagging feeling--who is that actress? I didn’t even make the association of her last name—it wasn’t until I downloaded the press notes that I had my “a-ha” moment. Elizabeth Olsen is the sister of wonder-twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, but in this astonishingly raw and brave debut, she severs any connection with their insipid franchise.
John Hawkes, now an ever-reliable ego-free character actor on par with Walken, contributes only a few memorable scenes as Patrick, the charismatic guru. Hawkes' song to Mary (he christens her "Marcy May") manages to communicate his charismatic pull on his followers (incidentally, the "Marlene" of the title is the generic name female followers are required to use when answering the phone).
The ending will surely polarize--ala "The Sopranos"--I'm still not sure if I felt satisfied or totally hosed. Suffice to say that it concludes with the suggestion that Martha's fears might lie ahead of her--for life. As the credits roll, we recognize that Martha’s true ordeal may still be ahead of her. What is real and what is her own manufactured threat? We'll never know, nor will she...
AMENDED JANUARY 2012: “Mary Marcy May Marlene” will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in February and will contain Durkin’s short, “Mary Last Seen”, from which the film was expanded.
©2011 Robert J. Lewis