Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
If this year follows the pattern of the last couple, which saw Jennifer Lawrence, Gabourey Sidibe, and Carey Mulligan breaking out of Sundance and riding a wave of critical praise to awards glory, then Elizabeth Olsen is well on her way towards a Best Actress nomination. With only a few film credits to her name (most of which were mid-90s vehicles for her sisters, the Olsen twins), she announces herself here as an actress to watch out for.
Moving back and forth through time, Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who is given the name "Marcy Macy" during her time in a cult (Marlene is the name all women in the cult use to identify themselves over the phone). The film opens with Martha/Marcy May's escape from the cult and its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) and her reunion with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy brings Martha to the Conneticut home she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Martha tells them nothing about the true nature of her two year long absence, though her increasingly odd behaviour suggests deep trauma.
In flashbacks we see Martha's life in the cult, how she's drawn in and made to feel that the only thing preventing her from being wholly accepted are her own boundaries, how she's ritualistically raped by Patrick and afterwards made to feel that it's a positive thing that has cemented her bond to the group, how she sinks deeper and deeper into group think and how and why she's jolted out of it and forced to run. In the present day we see that just because she's escaped the location of the cult, doesn't mean she doesn't continue to carry some of the values she adopted under Patrick's roof. She's quietly offended by Lucy and Ted's enormous house and money-focused existence - though not so offended that she's unwilling to benefit from it, as Ted is quick to point out. Besides the ideological remnants of her time with Patrick, she's also increasingly haunted by her memories and her growing instability shows just how fragile she really is beneath her confident and knowing veneer.
Olsen carries the film with aplomb, making it believable that Marcy would be susceptible enough to fall in with a cult, but also that she would be strong enough to leave it of her own accord. It's a performance that is equal parts vulnerability and self-assurance, one rooted in quiet intensity that slowly becomes uncoiled over the course of the film, as Martha begins to lose her ability to separate past from present.
The strengths of Martha Marcy May Marlene are rooted in the performances and the complex dynamics between the characters. Though their history is never fully elaborated on, Olsen and Paulson bring a sense of of it to Martha and Lucy's interactions which suggests that their two year disappearance from each other's lives is hardly unusual. The other key relationship in the film is the one between Martha and Patrick which is, of course, deeply disturbing. Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for last year's Winter's Bone, delivers another powerful and darkly charismatic performance. Patrick is a scary guy (in look, if not necessarily in rhetoric, he seems to be channelling Charles Manson), but you can also see why someone as damaged and in need of validation as Martha might be drawn to him and might buy the line he's selling.
Though the film is well-acted and very well-directed (Sean Durkin crafts scenes of almost unbearable suspense as the film nears its conclusion), there are some weaknesses with respect to storytelling. Though it moves fairly easily between two time periods, I think that the elliptical narrative gives it the illusion of having more story than it truly possesses, and perhaps more substance as well. I still think that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a good film, but I think it reaches into the indie bag of tricks (which includes the ultra ambiguous ending) a little too often.