First feature films, especially independent films, have such distinct qualities in comparison with other films that they might almost comprise their own genre.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) feels accomplished beyond its writer-director's resume because of his adherence to a couple of simple principles. First, Dance With The Fella What Brung Ya. For genre directors, that means you must obey the rules of your stated genre. You can include other elements, you can stretch the borders, but sooner or later you must satisfy audience expectation. For a more nuanced drama like M4, that means ruthlessly adhering to the spine of the film, not being distracted by other interesting related ideas. It requires confidence that you will make another film, that you do not have to cram every possible idea and every directorial skill into this, your one testimonial to the world. Because if you do make only one film, like Charles Laughton with Night of the Hunter or Leonard Kastle with The Honeymoon Killers, your discipline and fidelity to the central idea of your film will ensure that you are remembered as a great filmmaker, even with only one directorial credit in your obituary.
Thus M4 sticks to its one powerful idea using one powerful structural device. A young woman, stunningly played by Elizabeth Olsen, has escaped from a cult and found refuge with her somewhat distant sister. In the cult, as in most cults, the leaders have erased any awareness of time. There are no clocks or calendars around, no time-based goals, no sense of an end of something approaching, no promise of something new to start. So director Sean Durkin has engineered a film which seamlessly blends past and present in the mind of Martha, so that the implied threat of the cult never really fades away, no matter how long Martha spends in her new haven. Rarely has a film subsisted so completely on a diet of suspense without offering any sort of clear timeline; the result borders on a horror film, so terrifying is what Martha has escaped.
The other principle that Durkin has observed, at least from the point of view of a person who can only view the finished film and not the process of creating it, is forging a strong alliance with a talented and dedicated director of photography. For someone who has not been involved in filmmaking, it is impossible to understand how key the selection of a DP is, and how important it is for director and DP to develop an intuitive collaboration. On the most practical level, the DP is the single greatest determinant as to whether you will finish your film, finish on schedule and have coherent footage you can cut together. But past those rudimentary considerations, the DP determines whether the movie will look like the movie you have in your head or, if you're lucky, better than that movie.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the most striking looking independent film this year. It may be that great noir texture is only possible on 35mm, with bold asymmetrical framing and strong key lighting that would make Edward Hopper weep in recognition. Durkin and DP Jody Lee Lipes stage a number of scenes in a single take with a locked-off camera, an approach seen mostly in Jarmusch films or from the first year of talkies. The result is not stasis, but a feeling of inherent tension fixed within the boundaries of the frame. Instead of fearing some surprise from outside the camera's view, the threat seems to hover inside it, from the unexpected action of a character.
The frame above is a nice example of Lipes's effects. It looks underexposed, but only in the sense that Gordon Willis movies are underexposed. Faces move in and out of the light, mostly in shadow and intentions and feelings must be sussed out by the audience from subtextual hints.
It's not a masterwork, but it is assured, consistent and reliable with a dead perfect ending, and it announces Durkin, Lipes and Olsen as artists to seek out in future. And M4 also benefits from the reliably creepy John Hawkes, who is also seen in Higher Ground (2011), the directing debut of actress Vera Farmiga, based on a real-life memoir. Like Martha Marcy, it centers around a woman trying to shed a belief system. It also takes place in an underexamined rural America, not in the heartland, but in upstate New York.
Is it possible Farmiga remembered these rural New York locations from Down to the Bone, not to mention that film's DP Michael McDonough, who also shot Winter's Bone? This time out McDonough is asked to work with a sunnier palette, mostly insuring that all the actors' performances are seen clearly. This is an actors' film, especially in comparison with Martha Marcy and vacillates in style and tempo, which we can presume is intended to mirror the spiritual vacillation of the central character played by Farmiga. I will leave aside the spiritual struggle that drives the narrative; the film itself is set in a concrete world of making ends meet, of trying to keep marriages and best friends alive. That materiality keeps the film from spiraling into a pointless debate about faith, which ultimately defies visualization and dramatization.
Fireflies in the Garden (2008) relies on that staple of independent film, the family psychodrama, complete with controlling father, enabling mother and siblings differing on how to handle them. There are some minor variations, but nothing to explain how writer-director attracted Willem Dafoe, Ryan Reynolds, Hayden Panatierre, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson and above all, the non-indie Julia Roberts to this fairly routine run-through of the land between Cheever and Salinger. Once again, Kingston, New York is on display, leading one to wonder if there hasn't been some kind of big tax dodge going on in Ulster County over the past few years. I don't feel as if I can make definitive observations about this film, as the internet reports that 30 minutes and a music score have been cut from the film between 2008 and 2011, the year of the US release on DVD, which is how I saw the film. The worst thing I can say about it is that it has a fatal sense of restraint and good taste. Usually, I like those things, but dammit, I could have used some full-on weirdness and grossness to shake this film out of its well-made torpor.
What finally sinks it is that it is a film about writers, and much of it is based on an argument about writing. College professor Dafoe looks down on son Ryan Reynolds who writes popular romance novels. The son's disgrace as a boy revolves around the attempted appropriation of the title poem by Robert Frost. There is a barely-articulated argument about what is considered good writing. And when has that ever been a good subject for a film. At least if they were painters, we'd see their paintings. Writers are pretty much non-starters as film characters.
And Roberts appears so briefly and for such over-dramatic reasons that it smacks of stunt casting so that her name and face could be put on the video package.
All first films are calling cards, but some demonstrate real promise as filmmakers, and some demonstrate a future as hucksters and hype artists. But that's better than no talent at all.