Martha Marcy May Michael Shannon: Movie Madness 2011

(Movies discussed in this post: Martha Marcy May Marlene, Bellflower, Red State, Higher Ground, Take Shelter.)
“We all go a little mad sometimes,” a very famous movie character said. He was not nominated for an Oscar, but he should have been.

It was Anthony Perkins in Psycho, a little mad indeed. (Okay, that’s an understatement.) And while Oscar didn’t favor that film — too shocking and gruesome for its day — movie characters have been going more than a little mad, more than sometimes, ever since. That’s because, if we didn’t have insane antiheroes, we would barely need the Academy Awards at all. Craziness and gold go hand-in-hand. Just ask Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted, Kathy Bates in Misery, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. A lot more than one have flown over the cuckoo’s nest — oftentimes, with an Oscar in hand.


So this year’s slate of crazy people movies is nothing new. In fact, it might even be a modest showing. In 2011, the line between sane and not-so-sane is even blurrier than usual. We the audience don’t know if these characters are certifiably loony, or maybe just know something those around them don’t.

These aren’t big city movies. They’re red states, mainly. Stories of small communities. And oftentimes, religion has a lot to do with the madness.

In no film is this more true than Kevin Smith’s Red State.

Early on, Red State was one of the buzziest films of the year. It may have been Sundance’s most talked-about picture, for two reasons. One — it was a remarkable departure from the style and content of Smith’s previous films, which include Chasing Amy and Clerks. Two — he placed the movie up for auction, then revoked it, pledging to release it himself by a whole new model.

You’d never know Red State was directed by Kevin Smith just by watching it. (Until, maybe, the end, that is.) The film begins as something of a horror movie, with three horny teens on a quest for sex in what must be the reddest area of the reddest county of the reddest state in the nation. They meet an older lady (The Fighter‘s Oscar-winning Melissa Leo) who’s willing to do them all at the same time. For some reason, they find this appealing.

Even when she says she never lets a man in her “without having at least two beers in ’em.” Hot, right?

From there, things do not go well.Turns out, it’s a trap. The boys are kidnapped by a group of extremely right-wing Christians, and the film is notable for an extremely long (but riveting) sermon delivered by the group’s leader, played by the terrifying Michael Parks in a performance that may get him some Oscar love (depending on the competition). The boys attempt to escape, blood is shed, and then John Goodman shows up as an FBI agent. The film shifts in focus as the second half becomes a stand-off between the right-wing nutcases and the almost-as-crazy police. (Yes, these are gun-toting Christians with a whole lot of automatic weaponry.)

The film is surprisingly brutal, especially for a Kevin Smith movie. It’s a bleak story in which it’s tough to root for absolutely anybody. Smith kills off his characters seemingly at random, since neither he nor the audience is particularly attached to them. Some we may like more than others, but there’s not a lot of redemption to be found here. One of the cult members with at least some semblance of a conscience begs for the lives of the group’s children; but it’s hard to even muster much sympathy for them, since they’re being raised as evangelical terrorists.

Many individual moments and images are powerful. Some shocking. There’s a visceral sense of dread throughout, and the film’s jaw-dropping WTF climax is a deus ex machina of the most literal kind — well, until it is explained away in the film’s weakest link: a glib, exposition-heavy conclusion that would’ve been best left on the cutting room floor. Smith wants us to see hypocrisy and corruption in both religion and the law — but we’ve already seen it.

No point made here is that profound, and ultimately, the supposed “subtext” is what undermines the whole movie. Smith hammers his point home a bit too squarely, leaving us with a bad taste in our mouths because of the filmmaker’s blatant disdain for his own characters. Red State might have been a truly remarkable film if what it was trying to say wasn’t already so obvious; and there is nothing else on its mind. Honestly, I wish Smith had been brave enough to go for the gonzo apocalyptic finish he was hinting at — that would’ve been startling and original, and given us something to talk about. When I thought the film was genuinely about end with God stepping in to end the bloodshed, I was kind of amazed and kind of delighted. Ultimately, I was just mildly disappointed.

Kevin Smith giveth and Kevin Smith taketh away. Harrumph.

If Red State is as in-your-face as the right-wingers its sending up often are, then Higher Ground beats around the burning bush with grace and subtlety. (Up In The Air‘s Vera Farmiga directs and is the star.) It’s a simple story of a woman whose relationship with religion changes numerous time throughout her life, most notably when her vivacious (read: comic relief) best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk) suffers a brain injury and is left essentially as a vegetable. Corinne’s fellow Christians are quick to jump to the conclusion that it is God’s will; Corinne isn’t so sure she accepts that. Subsequently, she takes a lot of flack from her community for being outspoken and questioning the Almighty Lord.

Unlike in Red State, the Christians in this movie aren’t overzealous nutcases or mustache-twirling evildoers. They’re real people. But the film does touch on an element of groupthink that is borderline cultish. Corinne is branded an outcast the way so many historical and literary figures are — Joan of Arc, Hester Prynn — but no one is burned at stake. It’s all played quite real, which makes it all the more effective. So no one outright calls Corinne a blasphemer, a heretic, or a witch. But it’s implied. That age-old fear is there, in their eyes. You can see them turn on her when she doesn’t automatically subscribe to their beliefs anymore. Corinne is shunned by her peers, and ultimately, her husband (The Blair Witch Project‘s Joshua Leonard), because she wants to speak her mind. Higher Ground is an involving exploration of the sexism still very rampant in many small Christian communities.

Sexism plays an eve more vital role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, written and directed by Sean Durkin. Martha is a young girl searching for some kind of meaning or structure that was missing in her life before. She is brought by a friend to a commune, a farm, led by the mild-mannered but quietly manipulative Patrick (John Hawkes, quite understated). There are a lot of nice things about living here, such as a comforting sense of community. Everybody pitches in, everyone is given time to find their place.

There are also some very bad things.

The men eat before the women. The farm is not yet self-sufficient, which means, for now, that they have to steal to survive. (And, in at least one instance, kill.) Oh, and the women are all expected to “contribute” to the group — sexually, that is. Shangri-La this is not.

Marcy May escapes the cult and returns to her sister’s home, where she is “Martha” again. She does not tell Lucy or her husband Ted where she has been, but it becomes increasingly obvious that something is wrong. First, Martha thinks nothing of swimming naked in front of the neighbors and Ted. Then she decides to crawl into bed with Lucy and Ted while they’re having sex. Because where she comes from, this is normal.

An obvious problem arises — Martha hasn’t been to college, and she’s severely traumatized by her experience. How can she be expected to support herself? Are Lucy and Ted supposed to take her under their wing for good? Ted has an issue with that. These scenes in the present (peppered by increasingly troubling flashbacks to Marcy May’s time with the cult) take place entirely in Lucy and Ted’s vacation home in upstate New York, highlighting their life of affluent leisure. Martha doesn’t want to return to the cult, but her sister’s dependence on the material world is no more appealing. Isn’t capitalism a kind of cult of its own? she seems to think.The film’s title — admittedly hard to remember, at first — is reminiscent of the character’s transformation (which we see in flashback), the loss of individuality and identity. She is born as Martha, then changes her name to become Marcy May with her new “family.” She’s encouraged to leave everything that was Martha behind. “Marlene” is the name all the women in the commune use when answering the phone. Individuality is not allowed here. All women are the same. That’s Marlene — Martha, after she’s had the personality sucked out of her.

The performances are strong all around, including Sarah Paulson as the concerned but distant Lucy, Hugh Dancy as the frustrated Ted, and Melancholia‘s Brady Corbet as one of the cult’s quietly fearsome men. The standout, naturally, is Elizabeth Olsen — sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley — as Martha, who may very well be Oscar-nominated this year.

The film ends on a jarring note, one that can be interpreted many ways. Martha may soon be receiving psychiatric treatment. Is this just another form of brainwashing? How do you solve a problem like Martha? The three-times-titular heroine freaks out a couple times during Martha Marcy May Marlene, and at least once comes across as legitimately batshit crazy. But is she? You can make up your own mind; we’ll never know for sure.

Nor will we know about Take Shelter‘s Curtis. The above films are all about the struggles of individuals against ill-conceived, cultish groupthink in various extremes, but Take Shelter is about an individual’s struggle against himself, against the lot nature has chosen for him. As played by the frequently-crazed Michael Shannon (Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road), Curtis begins dreaming of the apocalypse — ominous clouds, motor oil raining from the sky, bloodthirsty citizens coming after his deaf daughter. He wakes up in cold sweats, gasping for breath (but not in that cheesy movie way).

Soon, the dreams become waking nightmares — he hears thunder, even when above him is a cloudless sky. There’s a storm coming, that’s for sure — but whether or not it’s literal or just symbolic of a cloudy mind is unclear. It’s no accident that Curtis’ visions are of the forces of nature — what he’s really fighting is his own nature, his own genes. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Curtis visits his mother, played by Kathy Baker, who is herself schizophrenic. She’s the only person who might understand what he’s going through, but he doesn’t tell her what he’s facing.
Take Shelter does something interesting by allowing Curtis to be clued into his own craziness. Most movies about paranoid people ask their characters to be fully committed to the idea that what they’re seeing and hearing is real. They scream things like “I’m not crazy!” when no one will believe them. (And in such movies, they are often not crazy.) But our hero knows full well that what he’s experiencing may well be a figment of his mind — he just can’t stop himself from acting on his instincts, anyway. Curtis goes against his better judgment and begins constructing an expensive storm shelter in his backyard, despite pleas from his wife to spend their dwindling savings on more crucial things.

Curtis is a smart and rational man; he comprehends the logic of what his wife is asking of him. He knows how this all looks. Most movie characters aren’t allowed to do what we would do in their position, but Curtis actually does. He seeks help. He sees a counselor. He investigates his mother’s mental illness to see if his might be similar. But he can’t fight his gut. This allows the audience to totally invest in Curtis’ predicament, and to understand even as he digs himself in deeper and deeper (literally, with that shelter) and his life falls to pieces. His behavior gradually goes from odd to bizarre to unsettling to pretty damn scary.Is Curtis really having prophecies of the apocalypse? Most of Take Shelter‘s audience probably won’t think so, but it isn’t out of the question. Curtis’ nightmares and delusions are vivid enough — and realistic enough — that they contain a palpable dread, regardless of whether they’re foretellings of what’s to come or just a normal, kind-hearted man’s descent into madness. And, in a way, aren’t both possibilities equally scary?

Religion doesn’t factor much into this movie. “We missed you at church,” Curtis’ father-in-law says, but God isn’t much use to Curtis. This matter is between Curtis and himself, man versus nature. However, there is something epic and Biblical about the images Curtis is confronted with; writer/director Jeff Nichols manages to convey his “cloudy, with a chance of doomsday” premonitions in a believable way. It gets under your skin. It’s haunting. And like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter ends with an ambiguous jolt. This one is a total jaw-dropping mindfuck, actually — it may alter everything you think you knew about this story. Take Shelter has stayed with me, weeks after I saw it; my admiration has only grown with time and distance. Initially I wondered if Michael Shannon wasn’t a bit miscast; he’s such a striking actor, and one we’ve seen explode with fury numerous times in other roles. Can we buy him as an everyman? I imagined what this film might have been like with Brad Pitt or Matt Damon in the lead. But Shannon is terrific.

Perhaps even better is Jessica Chastain, who nails a difficult role. She’s “the wife,” and yet she’s quite a bit more. Rather than naggy and shrill, she’s supportive; she raises legitimate concerns with what Curtis is doing, and what wife wouldn’t? But ultimately, she stands beside him. Fortunately, early awards have given some love to Chastain for this and other roles (she’s also in The Help, The Debt, and The Tree Of Life), so chances are good that she’ll pick up an Oscar nomination for this one. A critical favorite, it has a decent shot at nominations for the script, Shannon, and Best Picture, too.

Also receiving a bit of awards season love is Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, a grungy, micro-budgeted indie that packs a major punch for its shoestring cost. (Nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.) Like Take Shelter, it uses apocalyptic imagery to tell a personal story, centered around a protagonist whose sanity is questionable.

Woodrow and Aiden (played by writer/director Glodell and Tyler Dawson) are best buddies who spend their time dreaming up devices they’ll use when the world ends (which they seem to think is soon, for some reason). They build flame-throwers and a car named Medusa that will help them be the baddest of badasses once shit goes down. And hey, why not? Stranger things have happened.When they’re not planning how to wow the survivors of Judgment Day with their bitchin’ wheels, they’re mostly concerned with drinking beer and getting laid. (Do they have jobs? We have no idea.) This changes when Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) in the yuckiest “meet cute” ever — a cricket eating contest. Also part of the equation is Milly’s BFF Courtney (the appealing Rebekah Brandes), whom Aidan has a thing for.

The film unfolds as an indie romcom for awhile, with a road trip to a Texas dive being particularly memorable. But you know that won’t last because the film opened with some startling, blood-soaked imagery — and then, there’s all that apocalypse stuff. As Woodrow falls deeper and deeper for Milly, she warns him that she’s going to hurt him.

And then, she does. As it turns out, Milly’s kind of a slut.If you’ve ever wanted to use a flame-thrower to torch your cheating ex’s possessions, you may find a certain kinship with Bellflower, as I did. It follows no conventional structure or formula, and both the storytelling and execution are rough, at times even shoddy. (The cinematography has a grainy, dirty look, and at times, the lens is even smudged.) On the whole, the acting is merely passable (Rebekah Brandes being the standout). The story feels deeply personal, perhaps even obtusely, intrusively so. But overall, Bellflower succeeds with flair and originality.

Woodrow and Aidan obsess about the end of the world, but then more personal tragedies unfold. Woodrow loses interest in grandiose visions of doomsday; the emotional hell he’s going through suddenly feels much more real. It’s that old adage, be careful what you wish for — ask for the end of the world, and you just might get it. In Woodrow’s case, Milly was his world — and then it ends. He’s determined to make a bang out of the whimper.

Take Shelter: Hole yourself up in a dark theater and watch this immediately.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Mustn’t-miss magnificent movie.

Bellflower: If you see one man-battling-inner-apocalyptic-demons movie this year, see Take Shelter. If you see two, see Bellflower also.

Higher Ground: I’d give the above higher grades, but seeing it is the Christian thing to do.

Red State: Not right-wing friendly whatsoever. But if you live in a Blue State, you just might like it.

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