Martha Marcy May Marlene: Film Review

A star-making turn from the Olsen twins’ baby sis will put this disturbing drama on the map.

The Olsen twins' sis scores with a star-making turn in this mesmerizing feature debut from writer-director Sean Durkin.

Editors note: This review was originally published on Jan. 21, 2011

PARK CITY – Bypassing the celebrity minefield navigated since childhood by her big sisters, Elizabeth Olsen steps onto the radar as a seriously accomplished actor in this mesmerizing drama, which also marks an assured feature debut for writer-director Sean Durkin.

On first encounter, the alliterative tongue-twister title, Martha Marcy May Marlene, begs to be changed. (Just try finding anyone at Sundance who can get it right.) But it turns out to be an eerie fit for a movie in which young women allow their identities to be subsumed or even entirely replaced in their hunger to belong. This is a smart, suspenseful reflection on the insidious way cults operate and the psychological vulnerabilities on which they prey. For every predictable path presented in Durkin’s chiseled script, the film chooses to take a more nuanced direction.
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Opening with an immediate hook, Durkin shows us a series of carefully composed establishing shots of somber rural serenity. By subtle increments we learn that something is off-key at the isolated farm, where the women serve first, then eat separately after the men before bedding down in a dorm-like tangle.
As ambient noise is slowly amplified to forge a chilling mood, Martha (Olsen) is introduced quietly slipping away one morning. She flees through the woods and rests at a diner in town, where Watts (Brady Corbet), the commune’s deputy leader, urges her with a mix of menace and charm to return.
Those first minutes set the tone for a drama that doles out exposition with deft economy, building a mosaic of impressions from terse dialogue and from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ arresting widescreen visuals -- all static images and languid pans. From there on in, it rarely loosens its grip.
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Traumatized and uncertain about what she’s doing, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who retrieves her from somewhere in upstate New York and takes her to the lakeside Connecticut house where she is summering with her architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Despite being out of touch for two years, Martha offers little information about what or whom she is escaping, and the fragility of the sisters’ bond blocks Lucy from digging too deep.
Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier intercut smoothly between Martha’s difficult reintegration and her memories of the farm. What makes Olsen’s performance one of startling maturity and focus is that she’s playing an entirely guarded woman, yet often using little more than the palpable unease in her eyes, she holds nothing back. Her Martha is both unreadably secretive and an exposed mass of raw nerves.
Her antisocial behavior makes Lucy uncomfortable and stressed-out Ted bristle with resentment about the intrusion on his downtime. Martha’s open criticism of their materialistic values chafes almost as much as her offputting remoteness. Lucy mostly wants to be let off the hook for her guilt over leaving Martha to fend for herself as a child while she was off at college. The scarcity of detail provided in that background again shows shrewd restraint.
As tensions by the lake reach boiling point, the farm flashbacks become more vivid. They recap an assimilation process that begins with a gentle welcome then proceeds through dehumanizing sexual initiation. A steady shift follows in the view of what constitutes a family and each member’s role in it. The group’s sinewy leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), is a creepily charismatic figure who advocates the nirvana of pure love and trust, even if that state is achieved by absolute control.
Renamed Marcy May by Patrick as a seemingly playful part of his ownership process, Martha remains conflicted long after her flight from the cult. Following years of abandonment and indirection, she has finally been manipulated into seeing herself as “a teacher and a leader.” The drama conveys a strong sense of the seductive power of even the most warped community to the emotionally insecure.
Stories such as these open doors to all kinds of lurid characterization, but Durkin’s superb cast invariably find multiple shadings in their roles.
The film impresses most in its ability to sustain a mood of quiet dread, kicking up several visceral notches in the occasional stunning explosion of violence or verbal altercation. Right through to its ambiguous ending, the spell is transfixing.