by Coop Cooper
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” has an oddly cryptic title but a fascinating premise. It stars Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the infamous “Olsen Twins”) as Martha, an impressionable runaway who, after a lengthy disappearance, finally contacts her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for a place to stay. Lucy, now married and pregnant, takes in Martha who refuses to divulge any information about the past two years in which she was missing. Through flashbacks, we learn that Martha had been seduced and brainwashed by a Manson-like cult lead by a charismatic nihilist named Patrick (Oscar-nominee John Hawkes). As Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) become increasingly disturbed by Martha’s inappropriately erratic behavior, flashbacks reveal key moments in her time with the cult which hint at the reasons behind her shattered sense of reality.
In this one role, Elizabeth Olsen has eclipsed the careers of her older sisters with one of the best lead performances of the year. I’ve never witnessed such a realistic portrayal like this from any actor before in which you can visibly measure her soul melting away over the course of the story in such a way that you completely understand – if not identify with – the reasons behind her actions. There is very little overt violence and most of the disturbing incidents are merely implied, but the intentions behind the uncomfortable scenes drip with malice and foreshadowing. I would even go so far as to say psychological damage is done to the audience in the same way it happens to Martha… It occurs so subtly, you won’t realize you are affected by what you are experiencing until you take the time to soak it all in, especially after the read-between-the-lines conclusion.
In fact, if writer/producer/director Sean Durkin had tacked on a more obvious ending, I think this film could have been a mainstream hit, but I prefer his art house approach to the final scene in which you have to deduce what is about to come next. The fact that the ending leaves just enough information to your imagination, makes it even more intellectually and emotionally distressing. It is a subtle yet chilling experience that will surely resonate with voters during awards season.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is currently in limited release with a possible wide release forthcoming.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars