Martha Marcy May Marlene is a difficult film, both in its subject matter and how the viewer is asked to take in the events. But even in its more ambiguous moments, the film is undoubtedly powerful and haunting, helped largely by the lead performance of exceptional newcomer Elizabeth Olsen.
The film tells the story of Martha (Olsen), a young woman who escapes from a cult she was part of in the Catskill Mountains, led by the mysterious Patrick (John Hawkes). After escaping she is picked up and stays with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and in flashbacks we see her experiences as part of the cult while she tries to return to a normal life.
This type of ambiguous storytelling can often backfire, creating confusion and frustration where fascination should go. Fortunately, for the most part anyway, Martha Marcy May Marlene handles that ambiguity very well, making for an experience that allows you to both to fill in the blanks and read what we do get presented with in any number of ways.
The film is anchored together, and perhaps even raised beyond what it otherwise would have been, by the stunning performance of newcomer Olsen. She is sister of famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley… but don’t let that put you off! Olsen is a real find of an actress, giving an attention-grabbing debut performance (tragically overlooked by the Oscars) as a girl tormented and confused by her past experiences. It really is pretty difficult to take your eyes off her every time she’s on-screen, not just because of her looks but her vulnerable yet strangely enigmatic presence.
While clearly the stand out, Olsen isn’t the only performance of note here. The incomparable Hawkes, finally getting some of the spotlight and recognition he has deserved for years, is a terrifying character here, his weird and subtle charm making his actions and warped attitude all the more frightening. The likes of Brady Corbet and Sarah Paulson also give impressive performances.
This is tough subject matter we’re dealing with here and writer/director Sean Durkin certainly doesn’t pull any punches. There are indeed scenes which some viewers may find very disturbing – namely the cult leader’s “treatment” of the female members – but these scenes are there for a purpose and not just there for the sake of being provocative.
Nevertheless Martha Marcy is provocative but in the best of ways. Emulating the work of such directors as Michael Haneke (his Funny Games films in particular) and Lynne Ramsay, Durkin creates an uncomfortable and unsettling atmosphere, making for what could very well be described as a horror film. In the same fashion as Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, there might not be jump-scares or lots of gore but a chilling sense of fear and dread runs throughout the whole thing nonetheless.
Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t offer any easy answers, it’s not interested in spelling everything out for or making it easy to understand all the themes it’s aiming to get across. Through intelligent means the film allows us to read the events in a way that makes sense to us, and a terrifically vague ending is the ultimate embodiment of that. Quietly powerful, haunting and often downright disturbing, this is an impressively bold directorial debut with a mesmerizing performance at its centre.
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This review was previously published at Blog Critics.