The intriguing title of Martha Marcy May Marlene refers to the various names attributed to a single character, a young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen. The rest of the film swirls around this central performance, which is the hinge that everything else pivots on. The opening scene is a sparse, almost verite look at life inside a cult. Whilst it starts from this sparse point, director Sean Durkin slowly begins to fill in the gaps. To achieve this, the film employs a non linear structure flitting between Martha’s time inside the cult, and her recovery once she has escaped. This initially makes the film hard to get a grasp on. But the viewer who persists will be rewarded as Durkin harnesses the structure to draw parallels between the two situations Martha finds herself in by subtly blurring the boundaries between them. Thematically the film is concerned with the haunt of sexual abuse and manipulation and the manner in which these heinous acts perpetuate from one person to the next. One of the great achievements of the film is that it engages with these subjects thoughtfully and is not manipulative or dismissive of them as so many films are.
In comparison to what precedes it, the second half of the film does pose some problems. The film loses its way somewhat as the blurring of boundaries goes too far and veers into obliqueness. Also, flirtations with a more mainstream ‘cult thriller’ genre are unwelcome, especially as it detracts from the thematic core of the film. Overall the scenes which take place in the cult are not as strong as those occurring afterwards, with some clunkiness amongst the supporting performances. This is counterbalanced by the excellent performances by Sarah Paulson as Martha’s understandably concerned older sister Lucy and Hugh Dancy as her fiancée. Their continued, yearning attempts to establish exactly what happened to Martha in her two years away and growing exasperation at Martha’s erratic behaviour are effectively portrayed.
Though it may lack the showy mimicry so beloved of the Academy, Olsen’s performance is as good as any you will see this awards season. It is a raw, brave performance and Olsen is able to exude vulnerability and at times paranoia in a difficult role. The younger sister of the Olsen twins here announces herself as a pure Hollywood talent, with an ability to express emotion perhaps unsurpassed amongst young actresses.
Whilst the atypical delivery of the subject matter means it won’t appeal to everyone, this is a thought provoking and intelligent film, anchored by a phenomenal central performance.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opened theatrically on February 2 through 20th Century Fox.