You may know her sisters. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Your probably don't know her. Elizabeth Olsen, the 22-year old actress who makes her big-screen debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene. You will. Olsen turns in a career-making performance as a troubled young woman haunted by her experiences in abusive cult, and the movie, from writer/director Sean Durkin, is easily one of the best movies of 2011.
Martha Marcy May Marlene begins at a farmhouse where several young people, including Martha (Olsen), reside, seemingly content with their existence away from money and valuables. The group is driven by their respect for their leader, Patrick (Oscar nominee John Hawkes), who subtly manipulates and commands their reverence and unquestioning loyalty.
For some unknown reason, Martha flees and takes refuge at her sister's home, a large, lake house property far different from where she's been living for the last two years. At first she seems fine, just happy to be away from where she had been. But things aren't fine. As her past is explored, so is her present, revealing that the mind is a fragile thing, something that can be shaped and molded and not easily reset.
Martha Marcy May Marlene works on many levels. Durkin's first feature-length production, the movie is mesmerizing in all the right ways, relying on small inflections, nearly unnoticeable character reactions and an underlying buzz of dread and depression to guide the story and engage the audience. The film develops at a slow boil, the tension ratcheting up as Martha struggles all too humanly to comprehend the actions she's taken, and to maintain her sanity.
Olsen's quiet, haunting performance is spellbinding and elevates the material even further. At once very much an adult and yet childlike at the same time, she casts her tragic character as one that has been stripped of something that can't quite be defined. Her confusion and frustration and anger and guilt all flicker just beneath the surface, dancing in her seemingly innocent, sad eyes and twitching in her face.
While it's early in the year, it's not unreasonable to see an Oscar nomination in her future.
Speaking of Oscars, John Hawkes delivers yet another sizzling and frightening performance as the cult leader Patrick, a complex sociopath that is willing, either consciously or not, to corrupt the minds of his followers to achieve whatever it is he's seeking. As with any cult leader, it's impossible to discern whether his manipulation is intentional or derived from misguided sense of love. Hawkes plays his small role to perfection.
If there is a weakness, it's in the character played by Hugh Dancy, Martha's sister's husband. Dancy delivers a fine performance, but the transition his character takes from being nice and easygoing to upset and insensitive is abrupt. Since we see the film through Martha's eyes, and know the pain she's trying to work through, his willingness to so quickly turn his back on her is alarming. His character needed to be fleshed out more to account for this.
Aside from a few very minor flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an emotionally gripping and poetic tale that is superbly written, acted and directed. Of particular note is the seamless transitions Durkin implements to shift between the past and present, Martha's psychosis and memories. The care Durkin takes in these moments defines the overall picture. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting tale of a normal woman driven to the brink of insanity, pushed and prodded by actions that, at least on the surface, are of her own doing. This movie is one to watch, both now and during awards season.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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