It’s a role of intense emotional shifts frequently conveyed internally. It’s a portrayal of severe emotional and psychological damage created with such subtlety and intelligence it’s hard to imagine any healthy twenty-two year old pulling it off, let alone one related to seemingly vapid child star/fashion designer twins. Yet, here we are. I have a new favourite actress.
The raves are in.
Here is mine.
Martha Marcy May Marlene sees the aforementioned actress, Elizabeth Olsen, play the role of Martha, a young woman who escapes from a cult and attempts to re-adjust to a normal life with her family. Through flashback, we the audience come to know why this beautiful girl’s become so incredibly fucked up. Martha, however, says not a word about her ordeals to her elder sister Lucy.
Wrenchingly played by Sarah Paulson, Lucy, with as much empathy and concern as she can muster, attempts to not only re-assimilate Martha back into society, but with tremendous patience also awaits explanations that will potentially never come. It’s an incredible dynamic – Martha’s intense emotional shifts, mistrust and growing paranoia create a tension that, added to Lucy’s intense heartbreak as she struggles to understand her baby sister, forms the core of what becomes a surprisingly taut drama.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin (his first feature? Get the fuck outta here), Martha Marcy May Marlene also features the man fast becoming everyone’s go-to seedy redneck, John Hawkes as cult leader Patrick, creepily charismatic even as his horrific initiation rites and home invasions unfold. Durkin’s script bravely leaves it mostly in the hands of his actors, and if you’re looking for neat answers and heavy exposition, Martha Marcy May Marlene ain’t your slice of awesome. The film’s most suspenseful sequences often build through sound and Olsen’s reactions to it. What plot there is has been described already and there is no exposition – it is solidly a character piece that quietly builds like a lost ‘70s classic. Stripped of any melodrama, Olsen’s attempts to both be normal and deal with her past manifest in ways almost comparable to something like Greystoke. It’s perhaps a bizarre comparison to make on the surface, but behaviourally Martha returns to ‘civilisation’ from Patrick’s Catskills cult like a true outsider – she skinny dips in front of a shocked Lucy and her husband Ted, looks like she’s never seen herself before when she’s kitted up for a party, and her frank remarks at the unnecessary size of Lucy and Ted’s luxurious vacation home are all notable examples of how distant she’s become from normality and propriety.
The vacation home also functions as a nice halfway house, if you will, between the cult in the hills and city further away. Martha believes Patrick won’t let her get away and she’s still in close enough proximity for the cult to spread out and find her. She’s stuck between the here and the there and it’s in many ways a limbo, a space for who she is and who she was to duke it out in her head to see who’s left standing.
Years ago, my short story teacher told me that the best stories are slices of the in-between, and this is what Martha Marcy May Marlene heartbreakingly gives us: a beautiful slice of dark middle, anchored by a young lady whom the entertainment world will surely now rabidly court. You can’t blame them for that. If I had a chequebook worth more than the paper it’s printed on, I’d put a bunch of zeros down, tear one loose for Elizabeth Olsen and tell her to make whatever the hell she wants.
Go see Martha Marcy May Marlene, get swept up in its unsettling rural noir dreaminess and, like me, anxiously await what both its star and its writer/director attempt next.
+Cameron Ashley lives and works in Brunswick, Australia. Aside from the local bar staff who know him too well, he toils away in obscurity on numerous pulpy projects, including Crime Factory. He lived in Japan from 2003-2006 and still works through his bizarre bi-polar love/hate (mainly love these days) for the place through his column at this site. Join him as he works it all out.