Reviews of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Margin Call"

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
120 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

The title might slip your mind and twist your tongue, but "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a low-key, haunting, and emotionally riveting piece of work that won't leave you. It's writer-director Sean Durkin's feature debut, winning him the Best Director prize at Sundance, and a coming-out showcase for the gifted young Elizabeth Olsen. Even if she is the little sister of billion-dollar empire Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, 22-year-old Elizabeth Olsen leads her own path with her first major role. She's really mesmerizing to watch and unaffected in front of the camera. 

In this startling psychological drama, Olsen plays a young woman named "Martha" who goes by "Marcy May" and "Marlene" on a communal farm in upstate New York when she becomes absorbed in a cult group. One morning, she sneaks out and hightails it to a payphone to call her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her only family. Driving three hours to pick up her estranged sister, Lucy takes Martha to stay with her and her architect husband Ted's (Hugh Dancy) lakeside Connecticut vacation home. A worried and frustrated Lucy tries to get through to her sister, but Martha only tells her that a boyfriend lied to her and she left. Little by little, Martha's behavior seems very strange, perhaps even insane. Without hesitation, she strips off her clothes and jumps into the lake with Ted, and later wanders into Lucy and Ted's bedroom when they're having sex and curls up at the end of their bed, without understanding that her manners are inappropriate. 

Each of these events trigger memories in Martha, back to the two years she spent on the farm with charismatic, Charles Manson-like leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), and all of his followers. Her paranoia sneaks up on her when the nighttime sounds of pine cones falling onto the roof wake Martha, reminding her of the times she and Patrick's followers broke into wealthy houses to steal and on one occasion (from what we see) murder an innocent homeowner. Could the cult be tracing her whereabouts? And even though Martha is Lucy's family, will the trying-to-get-pregnant couple just throw out their bonkers house guest or find her some much-needed help? 
So precise and fluidly edited in its match cuts between the present and memories, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" burrows deeper and deeper into Martha's psyche as the secrets peel away. The "Marcy May" of the title makes sense when Patrick tells Martha she looks more like a "Marcy May" and then finally "Marlene" when she answers the farm's house phone. As she later tells Lucy, Martha sees herself as "a teacher and a leader," finding her role in the "new family," whether it be gardening or washing the dishes. Patrick calls Martha his favorite, names a song after her, and brainwashes the idea into her head that the most important part of life is just existing, whether you're alive or dead. To an even harsher degree, Patrick creates a ritual with each new female lured to the farm that they must cleanse their souls by drinking a shake that puts them out so they awaken to being raped by him. 

Olsen subtly conveys uncertainty, internal torment, and bruising just by her beautifully passive but damaged face and body language in what make up her tough, impressively brave performance. We actually believe that the cult has stripped away Martha of her inhibitions and understanding of human decency, and it's chilling to watch. After delivering expectedly nuanced work in last year's tonally similar "Winter's Bone," Hawkes is frighteningly persuasive and creepily charismatic as cult ringleader Patrick, whom every follower dutifully believes in. As always, he underplays it but with force. Paulson and Dancy also do some of their best work as Martha's sister and recently introduced brother-in-law. As sisters that aren't that close and don't see eye to eye, Olsen and Paulson are completely believable in creating a history and reason for a breach in their sisterhood. Their background is deliberately left in the dark, but we know their parents have passed and some sort of family unhappiness is behind them now.

Why Martha has run away and how she is ever lured by Zoe (Louisa Krause) to the farm is never altogether clear, but Olsen's complete transformation from wide-eyed newcomer to brainwashed follower takes us from A to B. Durkin's directorial style is like the hushed uncoiling of Roman Polanski, relying on long takes, naturalistic lighting, and a bleak visual palette. Jody Lee Lipes' cinematography, combining hand-held movement, static shots, and zooms, is artful and starkly gorgeous. One scene, where Patrick shows Martha/Marcy May how to shoot a gun at a living animal, is never exploitative but just as disturbing without even showing the harmed animal itself. The ambient music by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans further tightens the vice and keeps each scene propulsively tense. 

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" never gives us obvious, clear-cut answers even by the time it's all over. Employing an intriguing approach, Durkin avoids making judgment toward his characters (the word "cult" is never even uttered) and views the story from Martha's perspective, without Lucy or Ted ever hearing about the truth. Martha's own question to her sister of whether or not she's ever lost sight of what's a memory and what's a dream portend the ambiguity of the film's purposely inconclusive conclusion. Whether or not we know the truth in the final shot does not really matter because a great movie should evoke discussion afterwards. The film might just stop, and frustrate mainstream audiences that require a straight-up resolution, but its pall of dread and lack of relief lingers even after you leave the theater. The Sundance accolades were no fluke, as Durkin proves himself an admirably confident filmmaker and after "MMMM," Olsen ought to have first pick on a follow-up project. 

Margin Call (2011)
109 min., rated R.
Grade: B

The 2008 financial collapse is surely a dauntingly hot topic for several films this past year, what with the concise Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job" and the more-Hollywood "The Company Men." Especially now, when Americans are facing the brunt of this economic meltdown and protest for "Occupy Insert-Your-City-Here," writer-director J.C. Chandor's assured, impressive debut is a timely and compelling financial drama. "Margin Call" could not have been released at a more convenient time, allowing us to realize that there are no heroes and villians, and no innocence and evil. 

Similar to the corporate downsizing of 2009's "Up in the Air," the opening moments are melancholy snapshots of mass unemployment, as a human resources team of suits march, clipboards in hand, ready to impersonally conduct layoffs. Along with eighty percent of the trading floor of a fictionalized Wall Street investment firm (a mash-up of Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers?), senior risk-management executive Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) gets the axe after nineteen years before being able to finish a task. Being escorted to the elevator by security, Eric hands one of his subordinate analysts, 28-year-old sharpie Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto and those Spockian brows), a thumb drive and warns, "Be careful." While burning the candle at both ends to figure out Eric's models, Peter realizes the results do not look good. Calling upon his work buddy, Seth (Penn Badgley), and their cynical boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), they're looking at projections that indicate the near-future losses will far exceed the firm's total market capitalization. At the wee hours of the morning, Peter's findings are brought to the attention of his weary superior, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and finally in a seat-full boardroom, self-made Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), Sam's self-absorbed boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who flies in by helicopter. The downsized Eric's cell phone has been disconnected as a security measure (that which he condemns Sarah for), but as his former colleagues grow desperate, they need to get in touch with him before the next work day. 

Directed like a Steven Soderbergh film with a cool, businesslike precision and a script full of "Mamet speak" dialogue, "Margin Call" reads like an icy, wiry morality play. Set over a frantic all-nighter and mostly inside the office skyscrapers, the contained, shut-in feel works in the film's favor without the air leaking of it. Chandor could've taken the easy route, judging and vilifying the bigwig characters or turning the unwitting analysts into heroes, but they are all pretty human, reacting and trying to save their own asses in a broken system. Obviously paying close attention to dialogue, Chandor also makes sure the film never gets bogged down in overly complicated fiscal terminology to alienate or fly over general audiences' heads. For instance, when Tuld leads a meeting, Peter is asked to speak to him "like a small child or a golden retriever." That method of explanation goes for us dummies too. 

From a great ensemble of actorly pros (Spacey, Irons, Tucci, and Bettany) and still up-and-coming but equal talent (Quinto and Badgley), the performances are all well-honed. Quinto, also a producer of the film, plays Peter as brilliant without being arrogant. The film ultimately resides within Spacey, who's superb as a man of the gravy train trying to be faithful to the firm but remaining morally grounded. Irons is deliciously intense and slyly funny without resorting to hissable histrionics. Even Moore is effective as the lone suited-up female on Wall Street that takes the fall. 

Though mismarketed as a sizzling thriller, the pressure and the drama of the situation still quietly pulse with tension. Only does the film remain insular and keep its emotions in check. Sam's plot point about comforting his terminally ill dog being put to sleep and then later burying him (which by the way has no logical sense of time) feels way too wedged-in to try and humanize him. However, on the whole, it's no small feat for a first-timer to take a disinteresting, unsexy topic—finance—and make an urgent drama out of it from his own penned script and hardworking actors. "Margin Call" is too compulsively watchable and zeitgeisty to crash.