Toronto 2011: Creepy 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Features Oscar-Baity Performances

Martha Marcy Marlene Film Still

Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, the creepy psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen that was made for virtually nothing, premiered at Sundance in January, and was quickly swooped up for a reported $1.6 million by Fox Searchlight for an awards season run, screened for the press at the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time yesterday afternoon.

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The film tells the story of Martha, a vulnerable young girl (Olsen) who dropped out of her older sister's life for two years after the death of their mother. When she re-establishes contact and comes to live with her sister, she is a changed person -- renamed, deflowered, brainwashed, and haunted -- and the film cuts back-and-forth between the past and present, often rapidly and without warning, to help us piece together the mystery of what happened to her. We come to learn that she was drawn into a Charles Manson family-like cult, experienced and witnessed all sorts of horrible things, and then fled from it, chased by memories and, we are made to wonder, possibly even fellow members. The film's shaky and grainy cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes (Tiny Furniture [2010]), rapid editing by Zachary Stuart-Pontier (Catfish [2010]), and central performances all play integral roles in leaving the audience more than a little shaken and stirred by the time the ending abruptly arrives.

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My sense is that 22-year-old Olsen -- Mary-Kate and Ashley's younger and fuller-figured sister -- has a decent shot at scoring a best actress Oscar nod, but that an even safer bet for awards attention is the great character actor John Hawkes, who plays the charismatic but deranged leader of the cult. Hawkes, whom many other actors revere -- Vera Farmiga told me that she couldn't contain her joy that he agreed to appear in her directorial debut Higher Ground (2011) -- played a scary dude who spent a lot of time with a young girl in Winter's Bone (2010) last year and scored a best supporting Oscar nod, and did much the same in this film (only without any redemption) which might well produce a similar result.