Martha Marcy May Marlene

8 Nov

Director: Sean Durkin (2011)

marthamayAdmittedly, any film boasting an Olsen in its cast list is going to set alarm bells ringing. But when accompanied by a slew of awards including Best Direction at Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene appeared on track to cast aside any Olsen-associated impediments. And oh so rightfully so. Thankfully, aside from a few appearances in her sister’s straight-to-TV movies, Elizabeth Olsen has been able to grow relatively quietly into a frankly stunning actress, as evinced in Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, the affecting Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Escaping from a cult-like community in the Catskill Mountains, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) makes a phone call to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) – the first in a seemingly long time. Paranoid and terrified, Martha is not revealing much, but it’s enough for Lucy to know that she needs to collect her estranged sister. Bringing her back to the idyllic lake house she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha soon begins to unravel as she is thrust back into normality of life outside the cult. Of course, Martha doesn’t see it as a cult, and indeed never once acknowledges it as one, simply a place she lived with her boyfriend, a boyfriend that she never wants to see again.

Through a series of flashbacks ranging from the warm and heartfelt to the abjectly horrifying, we experience the slow dawning realisations of what Martha – or Marcy May, as they called her in her new ‘family’ – lived through. The slow pace adds to the disconcerting tone of the film, as we piece together Martha’s past and also watch as she gradually begins to understand, or tries to, that the way she was living is not healthy. Stripping naked to swim in the lake, sleeping in the bed while your sister makes love to her husband – what may have been the norm in the mountains certainly doesn’t fly back home… But while such events might make us recoil with this personal boundary breaking antics, the real horror comes in that Martha truly doesn’t see why these behaviours are inappropriate.

Beautifully visual, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller wrapped and performed as if it were a family drama. Without the usual shaky-cam, Hollywood sheen too often bestowed upon the usual escape-reunion templates, Durkin creates a perpetually unsettling but affecting film, bringing out the best in his actors and also the minimal script itself. John Hawkes excels as cult leader Patrick, strangely seductive but instantly casting a chilling presence over ever frame he fills and the young Olsen is truly a talent to watch.

Piece by piece building its crooked picture of a life, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting insight into the disjointed and hysterical mind of an escapee, whether it be from a cult or a relationship. And as the credits roll, we too have a dawning realisation in that there is still a piece of the puzzle we will never know and that Martha’s return to life is nowhere near complete…

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