Martha is a member of a cult when our film opens, known to them as Marcy May, and after a brief survey of the cult’s complex we see her escape and run away to the safety of her sister; her only family she has left. From here we get a look as Martha rehabilitates back in the real world while also flashing back to her time with Patrick and his family; the cult she has spent the last two years with. As we see Martha struggle with her re-entry into the real world we slowly peel back the layers of her past life and discover what those people are capable of. Martha’s reflections create a tension and paranoia around her as she feels like her past is closing in around her.
The debut of Elizabeth Olsen is worth the price of admission alone as she is arresting from start to finish; appearing in every scene of the film.
She is so natural and believable in the part, showing a broad range of emotions, and she gets to do just about anything you can imagine in the part. Martha is put through hell and is sent down a slow spiral, in both phases of her life, and Olsen nails every beat. Her eyes just suck you in and I couldn’t find myself able to pull away as she lets us almost look deep into Martha’s soul. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here and I think she has turned in possibly the best female performance of the year so far.
The director Sean Durkin is almost equally impressive, crafting a picture that effortlessly bounces around through time while intentionally manipulating your perspective throughout. This tactic is never jarring though and Durkin and his team use the imbalance to great effect, catching you off guard on more than one occasion. As effortless as the timeline is played with, the tension is just as easily created and we are easily able to give ourselves over to Martha’s paranoia as we move deeper into the film. Durkin’s eye is also quite sharp and he frames some beautiful shots making the film look far more impressive then it probably should for a film of this budget. Durkin also creates a world that you can believe, even if you don’t want to, in that cult compound and you will see a number of disturbing things unfold. The film also knows how to play with the paranoia and cover both sides of the coin on whether or not what Martha is feeling is real, a tough and impressive balancing act.
I have already touched on the acting by Olsen, but the cast has a couple of other great performances in there as well. Martha’s sister and brother in law are played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy and their work on the roller coaster that is Martha is great. You never know what is going to happen next with this trio and everyone is always on edge with one another. The balance they achieve is realistic and sincere and we feel their conflicted emotions every step of the way. Back with the cult, Patrick is played creepily wonderful by the always magnificent John Hawkes and he is no different here. In particular, the shot of him playing his song for Marcy May is incredible, sweet and creepy all at once and Hawkes makes you believe how he sucked these women in. Maria Dizzia is another creepy and heartbreaking standout as the mother figure at the compound and she will shock you in more ways than one before the film is over.
In the end, Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite a debut for its director and star, but a fantastically tense film as well. The film’s ambiguity to Martha’s entry into the cult and the film’s ending will surely drive some mad, but I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. Technically impressive and nearly constantly engaging, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film not to be missed and you can say you got on the Elizabeth Olsen train from the get go.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an A-