I love the magical communal moment that occurs at Sundance at the end of every movie just before the theater lights come up. While the credits roll, hundreds and hundreds of moviegoers bow their heads in prayer, murmuring over tiny votive candles, and the auditorium appears to be dotted with sacred points of light piercing the darkness. At first I thought those miniature beacons reflected this year’s Sundance marketing and design theme, “Be There,” articulated in a warm voice-over narration by festival founder Robert Redford in the video tag before every screening. “Imagine a world without stories,” Redford murmurs, as flickering lightbulbs fill the screen. But now that my eyes have had a day to focus, I realize that the miracle I’ve been witnessing is the collective glow of electronic hand-held devices as attendees fall into deep contemplation of urgent confessions sent by fellow souls within the last two hours, intelligence along the lines of, “I’m 4 rows Bhind U! L8R!”
I saw five films on the first full day of Sundance and one on opening night. And while I don’t recommend this pace of cinematic consumption on a steady basis – over time, the lack of fresh air and sunshine-vitamin-D can mess with critical attention – I do always enjoy that initial immersion as a kind of all-in leap into the fray, and an opportunity to noodle around with bigger notions of current filmmaking as filtered through the Sundance experience. Project Nim, for example, James Marsh’s engrossing documentary about the arduous life of one famous chimpanzee, brings to life Elizabeth Hess’ essential, deeply reported 2008 book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.
This chimp’s life was an appallingly hard one: Nim was wrested away from his mother as a newborn, raised as a human child and taught sign language in a vague scientific experiment, passed from human keeper to keeper with utter disregard, and abused, for a long, inhumane stretch, as a test animal in a medical lab. Using techniques that reflect the work of Errol Morris and a storytelling voice pitched somewhere between lyrical compassion and acerbic WTF?, Marsh (who used a very different voice to make Man On Wire) creates an implied link between the indignities endured by one magnificent animal and the apesh– behavior of the blithely fallible, romantically tangled, hippie-era humans who took Nim into their homes. You don’t need to be Charles Darwin to appreciate Marsh’s close study of human monkey business.
It’s near impossible to say the name of Sean Durkin’s feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, without first pausing to gather the four names in the right order, and not add Mary, Marla, or Mandy to the arbitrary string of M’s. Even the festival’s quick-witted director, John Cooper, needed a bit of a King’s Speech pause to get the word string right during his introduction. (So here’s a vote for a future title change.) Besides, Mx4 is all the same girl – a depressed, uncommunicative young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen, a beautiful if opaque, effortlessly photogenic newcomer who may or may not be tired of being referred to as the young sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley O. When we first meet MMMM, she’s escaping from the unspecific, abusive cult in which she has been living as a harem member for two years, hidden away in the Catskills. The Charles Manson-like cult-leader (John Hawkes, still burning off some of his Winter’s Bone intensity) has named the very pretty, weirdly passive girl Marcy May. But she returns to her birth name, Martha, when she goes to live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulsen), and her sister’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their luxurious Connecticut lake house. I leave the identity of Marlene for the viewer to discover.
Two years of cult life, the amenities of which include rape, can make a woman crazy. Understandably, MMMM arrives at her sister’s lakeside doorstep traumatized and nearly catatonic. The frustration of Mx4 is that, Durkin – like many other young graduates of the Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Lab – is more adept at adding Interesting Story Elements than at making the story unfold with organic inevitability. There’s not one clue as to why Martha Etc. was drawn to a cult in the first place, or who she really is, or why she makes the choices she does, or why Lucy can’t get a clue, right from the get-go, that her estranged sister is in dire psychological shape and needs help.
Also? Also? I am tired, tired, tired of beautiful adult female characters who act and talk like zombies, little girls, and mentally challenged hothouse flowers while the camera caresses their flawless bodies. Grow up! Use your words! Answer questions when asked, keep your shirt on, and don’t bite your lips!
Which brings me to The Ledge, by Matthew Chapman, who notes in his bio that he’s the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin (Chapman may want to chat with Nim’s James Marsh), and that his intention is to “marry his love of the thriller with his fascination with religious extremism.” Welllllll…..Chapman does go out on a ledge, I’ll give him that. So does a guy named Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), threatening suicide high above a Baton Rouge street. A cop/suicide negotiator named Hollis (Terrence Howard) is trying to talk Gavin down. See, Gavin is an amiable, sexy, non-religious, hotel middle-manager. And he develops a thing with his married neighbor (Liv Tyler), who comes to work as a housemaid at his hotel, looking like a chaste schoolgirl because she’s the wife of a stern born-again Christian (Patrick Wilson) who thinks that, among other beliefs, homosexuality is an abomination – which is problem because Gavin’s roommate is gay. Meanwhile, Hollis is a Roman Catholic with marital troubles and…Whoa! The characters are placed like strategic pinheads (you heard me) on a map of religious options, not one of which is honestly explored. The born-again Christian is lit with a sinister glow and Wilson plays him with a mad glint. The characters don’t so much discuss different attitudes toward faith and religion as spout paragraphs of text. The movie is crazy with “thriller” gestures that evoked unintentional laughs among the movie-wise Sundance audience.
And as played by Tyler with her whispery voice, grave and moist gazes, and slow physical gestures, the female in this story is a play doll, a shivering doe, a seductive yet passive school girl in need of male protection, and a grown-up who doesn’t know how to speak like grown-ups do. The camera does like her bod, though.