Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.
Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”. i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene. The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.
As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.
Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.
So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.
Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Martha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.
It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.