Thursday, April 26, 2012

'A story is told as much by silence as by speech'

I saw the recent film ’Martha Marcy May Marlene’ last night, and was reminded of this quote by Susan Griffin, 'A story is told as much by silence as by speech'. My first response—yikes, what a movie. Creepy. Right from the start—an atmosphere of tension, dread, and foreboding. An atmosphere of intensity and tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Probably one of the most intense films I’ve seen, definitely not for the weak of heart. And I mean it. I found myself having to breathe, because I kept holding my breath for much of the movie. The film is not overtly violent from the physical standpoint except for one scene where you can see the violence coming a mile away—the person happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, unfortunately. The other violent scene involves cats, but you don’t see the result of the violence. That scene also contains the implication of violence toward a human being, and that by itself is nerve-wracking. Even though it doesn’t occur, you know it’s likely to in the future. From the psychological perspective however, the film is a continual assault on your nerves and psyche. It is the story of a young woman who manages to leave her ‘family’, a collective of men and women who live together on a farm and sleep together at random. The family has cult overtones, and not surprisingly, once you get a glimpse of its leader, Patrick, you cannot help but think of Charles Manson and his family. What the film gives you is an insight into how such families function, and even how they came to be. Besides Martha’s story, there is one scene where one of the male family members drives home with a new female ‘recruit’ in his black SUV. It made me think of the film Silence of the Lambs, how the serial killer Buffalo Bill managed to lure women into his van and kidnap them. The promise of love, family and acceptance is the lure in this film—the family members are young men and women who have come from presumably dysfunctional families. But you never really know for sure, in the same way as you never find out much about Patrick’s earlier life. I kept remembering back to my own youth, and how the Moonies used to come onto my college campus to try and recruit us to join them. I remember one young woman who nearly succumbed to their propaganda and how I fought to keep her from joining them. She didn’t, luckily. But it’s possible to get fooled in other ways, not necessarily by a cult--but by a man who says he loves you, or a woman who says she is your friend, that you can trust her. We want to hear those things. ’Martha Marcy May Marlene' is a scary film, and more of a horror film than any horror film you’re likely to see. Because it involves real people, who abuse one another in the name of ‘love’, and who have lost all semblance of what it means to be living breathing emoting human beings. They have turned into automatons who obey their leader, who mostly does not punish them with physical violence except in one respect (the ritual for the new women who become a part of the family is that they ‘sleep’ with Patrick, but the reality is that he rapes them. This is all presented to the new recruits as a cleansing and a special night that they will never forget). Patrick manages to be a truly menacing presence in their lives. You know that he is capable of physical violence if triggered, and you’d rather not trigger him (psychological abuse).

Martha is mostly silent. She says very little, talks very little, offers few explanations for why she ‘disappeared’ off the face of the earth to live with her ‘boyfriend’ on a farm in the Catskills in New York State. She is mostly monosyllabic in her responses, and you know it is because she cannot begin to verbalize what she has been through. She is mostly in shock, and is trying to come to terms with what happened to her in the setting of her sister Lucy’s summer home on a lake in Connecticut. Lucy’s husband Ted has little patience with her, and the tension between Martha and Lucy and Martha and Ted is also nerve-wracking. You know something bad is bound to happen. I was glad to see that the director did not take the trite route of having Ted seduce Martha. There have been too many of those sorts of films and they most often don’t strike me as realistic. Lucy tries all sorts of ways to get Martha to open up about what happened to her and how she spent the last two years; she is overprotective and a bit controlling, but has a good heart and wants her sister to ‘get better’. Martha remains quiet and robotic. Her silence makes her powerful, even though she is not seeking that power. The natural silence of the rural settings in the film (the farm and the lake house in the woods) also lends to the tension and foreboding. Martha’s silence gives her a kind of (unwished for) control over her surroundings, but you know that she cannot control her former family. Patrick’s family is the wild card in her life—a menacing presence at all times, one that invades her dreams and her waking hours. Lucy and Ted merely dance around her, trying to integrate her into their lives as best they can. They fail. When they finally realize that she needs professional help, it really is too late. Without giving away the ending of the film, which I found rather abrupt, I can tell you that this is not a film with a happy ending, as ambiguous as it was. Elizabeth Olsen did a great job as Martha, ditto John Hawkes as Patrick, and Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy as Lucy and Ted, respectively. The movie's writer and director Sean Durkin has made an unsettling and uncomfortable film, one that you will not quickly forget.  

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