Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

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 KevinMartha 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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.

I cannot fault you for not liking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with 100% undivided attention. Once you put in all the work the film is demanding and fully immerse into its hypersensitive world of subtleties, it becomes a rewarding experience. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase. Everybody is looking behind their backs.

Director Tomas Alfredson does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) The story has a non-linear plot structure that the audience needs to piece together. 2) There is no explanation for the spy lingo. 3) The audience must play detective along with George Smiley, tracking who said what to whom, matching it to what was said in a previous scene to deduce if they are lying. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?

The film completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a spy thriller, which confirms my point. This is not a story about espionage at all. No, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about mistrust. It’s about these men confined in tight spaces perpetually spying on each other and how it alienates them apart. Humanity is a weakness and compromises their survival as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lies to another character with a perfect poker face. The bleak coldness that he exudes is intense and shocking. The subplot with Smiley’s wife artfully gives insight to the Smiley character. We never get a good look at the wife because she exists as an idea – she is the deal he has to make with the devil. Home is where Smiley is at his most vulnerable and we see the consequences of Smiley’s commitment to his cold-hearted profession.

Since I’m a Sherlock fan, I loved seeing Benedict Cumberbatch rise through the ranks into films now. He’s great as Gary Oldman’s younger sidekick who is still wet behind the ears. I look forward to seeing him in the next Star Trek movie. Please don’t make him play Khan. It would be a waste. Toby Jones’ face screams red herring. Alfredson films Jones in a way that makes him look like an evil leprechaun, similar to how Sergio Leone’s penchant for filming faces as if they were landscapes.

Speaking of which, this film has great cinematography in that it tells the story. The film is about discovering truth amongst a cloud of lies and the cinematography really serves that idea visually. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has managed to find layers of shadow in places that I didn’t know exist, like the backseat of a car. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. With the long lenses, the audience is looking into the lives of these spies seated in tight spaces, as if we are watching them suffocate.

Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! Notice George Smiley’s glasses in every scene. It’s used like Maggie Cheung’s dresses in In The Mood For Love. What’s genius about is it forces you to look at Gary Oldman’s eyes, which both guides your eyes to his performance and immerses you along with his investigation of what’s going on as he interviews each suspect.

Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does an actor underplay a role to this degree and still manage to be this engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it seems unlikely Oldman will win the gold statuette. It’s a subtle performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least the Academy recognized the brilliance of his performance. It’s a step, right?