Memories are Not Made of This: J. Edgar, Martha Marcy May Marlene

“He’ll do anything to hold on to his power.” An older J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio in fairly good old-age make-up) says this about Richard Nixon late in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, but he might as well be talking about himself. It also exhibits a characteristic of the screenplay, in that it—to borrow Billy Wilder’s phrase-tends to “make the subtleties obvious.” Certain motifs are reiterated and underlined just in case we missed them (abuse of power, grandstanding, self-deception). Not that the movie isn’t entertaining—it is–it just could have been a lot more.

It begins with an aging Hoover (circa 1963) recounting his career for a writer (gee, we haven’t seen that narrative device before)-while contemplating whether or not to sabotage (by means of illegal wiretap) Martin Luther King’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize. The flashbacks are generally confined to 1919-1935-the period in which Hoover rises to become head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation –mainly through his obsession with ridding the country of the Bolshevik menace. He also fights for the Bureau to become a centralized agency with files, fingerprints—and firearm rights. And as Hoover wages war on organized crime, disorganized gangsters, and the kidnapers of the Lindbergh baby (while hogging all of the credit)—he also secretly uses the power at his disposal to gather incriminating material on all sorts of real, potential, and imagined enemies. Is it all in the name of national security –or Hoover security? In the meantime, he tries to be the good son to his doting mother (Dame Judi Dench) and live up to her expectations that he be a man, not a “daffodil.” -all this while cultivating a lifelong friendship (romance?) with confidant Clyde Tolson (an excellent and quite sympathetic Armie Hammer). Leonardo DiCaprio’s nuanced portrayal of Hoover reveals a patriotic, obsessive, egomaniacal, occasionally vindictive—and quite socially inept individual who both shuns intimacy while desiring acceptance-and affection. The pace moves fairly swiftly but the movie’s focus leaves you with an incomplete picture, while the whole King episode is dispensed with a little too abruptly. Toward the end, an anguished Tolson (Hoover’s conscience) hints that Hoover has been inaccurate with his memories—it might have been more interesting to see that suggested throughout, rather than just stated at the end. Yes, the movie is entertaining-it just could have been better.

Early in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a young woman, Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) flees what appears to be a farming commune in upstate New York. Later, as she eats alone at a diner in silence, one of the members (leaders?) suddenly appears. He makes no overt threats; he just munches on what she’s left in her plate, encourages her to return, then goes on his way. The rest of the movie devastatingly depicts the aftershocks of Marcy May’s experience, as she tries to return to her formal, “normal life” as Martha. She contacts her newly married sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and we learn that Martha has disappeared for two years. For all anyone knows, including Lucy’s patient husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha’s been away with a man. However the narrative seamlessly goes back and forth between Martha’s losing struggle to adjust to the “outside world” and her experiences inside the commune (read cult) under its charismatic, dangerous leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Scenes of Martha being enchanted by what she sees as a pure, compassionate lifestyle are followed by episodes of seduction, sedation, and sexual assault—courtesy of Patrick, who keeps assuring “Marcy May” she is “her favorite.” Yet even life with her sister proves no relief—Martha’s emotional scars manifest themselves in bursts of anger, paranoia, and frightening emotional outbursts, as in a dinner party during which Martha goes off the deep end Then there’s her lingering feeling that she may have been followed. .. Writer-director Sean Durkin keeps a sure hand as Martha steadily unravels; Elizabeth Olsen convincingly conveys both Martha’s inner demons and her vulnerability ; Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy contribute fine work as they agonizingly realize that helping Martha may be beyond them; John Hawkes is all gaunt, smiling menace as the leader who casually inflicts psychological pain, then asks you to pass it on. And he might just sing for you…