The most effective horror films, the ones that linger in your mind long after you turn off your bedroom lights, don’t blurt out their intentions right away. They lure in unsuspecting viewers with stories that feel deceptively safe, and it’s only when the filmmakers are sure they’ve established that false sense of security that they sink their claws into your tender skin
Martha Marcy May Marlene, one of three new releases I’m reviewing on this fantastic weekend for movie buffs, is being billed as a psychological thriller, but don’t believe the marketing campaign. It’s all a front for Sean Durkin’s diabolical plan to scar you for life. This is the writer-director’s feature debut, but his confidence and complete control of the medium make this chiller feel like the work of a seasoned veteran. Roman Polanski and William Friedkin must be seething with envy.
What kicks the plot into motion is an escape. A terrified woman in her early twenties (Elizabeth Olsen, simply sensational) sneaks out of what looks like a farm in the middle of nowhere. “Marcy May,” a man cries out offscreen. One frantic phone call later, she finds herself in the spacious lakeside home of Lucy, her older sister (Sarah Paulson), and Ted (Hugh Dancy), her dashing English husband. From the moment Martha, as her Connecticut-based relatives call her, steps into this magazine layout of a house, it’s clear the siblings are estranged. Their interactions are awkward, fraught with tension, and that’s before you take into account Martha’s looney-tunes behavior. She seems to have no qualms, for instance, about going skinny dipping in broad daylight, though Lucy’s anal-retentive reaction is a bit much, as is the way Ted’s politeness quickly gives way to contempt for his visiting in-law.
Martha’s loved ones, with whom she lost touch for over two years, cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of the unspeakable acts she’s witnessed, but through a series of vivid, increasingly unsettling flashbacks, Durkin takes viewers inside that quiet stretch of land that Martha called home during her off-the-grid period. To call it a commune would be disingenuous. It’s more like a non-sectarian cult with echoes of Warren Jeffs’s sexual politics. Their fearless leader, played with a mixture of charisma and cold-blooded cunning by Winter Bone‘s John Hawkes, doesn’t come across as a sociopath. At least not right away. There he is, serenading “Marcy May” with a song he composed just for her in a scene Durkin shot like a vintage photograph come to life. “I don’t blame you for not trusting people,” Patrick, as he calls himself, tells his newest member. “If you feel safe here, let us in,” he adds, fully aware of the literal connotations of his remark.
A more conventional film would have focused on the very real possibility that Patrick and his clan intend to track down their wayward follower, but Durkin is after bigger fish here. By seamlessly cutting back and forth between the two parallel narratives, he places viewers inside Martha’s disoriented state of mind, and by doing so, he finds just as much emotional violence in Lucy’s yuppie abode as in Patrick’s rigid patriarchy. A heated exchange between Martha and Ted, for instance, draws blood because she accurately calls him out on his materialistic lifestyle. Martha might be damaged goods, Durkin appears to imply, but she’s not the only one in sore need of deprogramming. The lake surrounding Lucy’s home is an apt metaphor for the calamities that beset Durkin’s isolated heroine. He plumbs the depth of her warped psyche and prevents the viewer to come back up for air. He ends Martha Marcy May Marlene in an abrupt, elliptical note that initially had me scratching my head. Then I understood, and my skin turned pale. Durkin’s disquieting slow-burn descent into madness and despair showcases his dark gift: an uncanny ability to find terror in everyday life.
While I was deciding whether to punch or commend Durkin for messing with my head, I opted to check in with this weekend’s other unwanted house guest, a loud and obnoxious Jewish princess from the Bronx visiting her twin brother, a successful Los Angeles ad man, for Thanksgiving weekend. Both roles are played by Adam Sandler, which should be all you need to know before taking a gamble on Jack and Jill. The desperately unfunny results, however, represent a new low for the actor, who shares screenwriting duties here with Steve Koren. The film’s irritating brand of slapstick recalls the self-indulgent work of fellow Saturday Night Live vet Mike Myers. (Remember The Love Guru? This is worse.)
Just how embarrassing is Jill Sadelstein? She dresses in garish clothes picked out of Marshalls’ bargain bin, always keeps Poopsie, her equally loudmouthed cockatoo, by her side, and sweats through her clothes – and her bedsheets – like a professional athlete (more on the perspiration later). When she asks her brother Jack to pick her up at the airport at 4:00 am, Erin (Katie Holmes, adrift in a thankless role) advises her hubby to play nice, but all he can think about is a) she’s only here for four days, and b) he needs to get Al Pacino to agree to do his new Dunkin’ Donuts campaign. The gratuitous product placement is nothing new for a Sandler vehicle, but yes, you read correctly. Pacino. Playing himself. I guess talking Nicole Kidman into picking up a paycheck in the slightly less unwatchable Just Go with It this past spring wasn’t enough for the Happy Gilmore comedian.
Jack hounds Pacino at a Lakers game to get him to commit to sell his soul for coffee (the Dunkacino!), but Scarface can’t keep his eyes off his sister, who does not return his affections. The Oscar winner acts as in a daze, his bewildered stare the only discernible expression throughout the entire film. Can you blame him? I will, however, say this for Jack and Jill. This feature-length sitcom is often trashy in an eccentric way that runs opposite to the more generic mediocrity in so many disposable studio comedies. Case in point: Pacino looking in awe at at Jill’s sweat-stained bed…and then proceeding to roll around in it! Director Dennis Dugan also rights a wrong when Jill accidentally smashes the Oscar that Pacino stole from Denzel Washington back in 1993. What brings viewers down from the contact high these disreputable moments can elicit is Sandler’s insistence in sentimentalizing the relationship between the siblings. She might be impossible to stand, but gosh darn it, Jill has got such a big heart. When you’re conveying this much warmth with Rupert Gregson-Wagner’s unbearably syrupy film score, however, you’re only succeeding in alienating even the most ardent Sandler supporters. This early Thanksgiving turkey practically dares you to tear it to pieces. Twist my arm, why don’t you?
This week’s must-see family-friendly comedy is actually playing at your local arthouse. Le Havre, an enchanting French import, is the latest deadpan treat from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki. He takes that staple of middlebrow European fare – an older man’s life brightened by an adorable youngster – and makes it feel fresh and downright irresistible. Marcel Marx (André Wilms) shines shoes for a living in the film’s titular port city in Normandy. His reaction when a costumer is gunned down in front of him? “At least he had time to pay.” But even though he has become desensitized to his working-class surroundings, Marcel’s a good guy, something he proves by sheltering Idrissa (newcomer Blondin Miguel) a French-speaking African boy who runs into the city streets after authorities find the crate where he was hiding along with several other illegal immigrants on their way to England.
“Is this London?” he asks Marcel. Not quite, and Kaurismäki depicts this seaside community as an idyllic town stuck in a time warp. In the director’s idealized version, a police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) on the trail of the missing preteen stops at the local watering hole for a cup of red wine. Catholic priests discuss the New Testament during a cigarette break. Rotary phones are still in use. And rock star Roberto Piazza (aka Little Bob) can be counted on to perform a charity concert to send Idrissa on his way to safety. If it all sounds a tad too precious, it really doesn’t play that way. Kaurismäki treats the ripped-from-the headlines subject matter with his unique dry wit and perfectly-pitched minimalism. A master of the reaction shot, he uses his disarming charm to make one of the most deeply satisfying films of the year. It’s old-fashioned in the best possible way.
Le Havre kicks off a Kaurismäki retrospective at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) throughout November. It also screens this weekend only at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). Martha Marcy May Marlene starts Friday at AMC Sunset Place and Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Theatre. They’re two of the best films of 2011. Jack and Jill seems equally poised to gain awards attention…at least as far as the Razzies are concerned. You have been warned.