Actors Elizabeth Olsen and Hugh Dancy attend the 49th annual New York Film Festival presentation of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on October 11, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
A brilliant debut for a first-time director. Martha also has a killer ending.
At the center of the dark and unsettling portrait of a young woman that is Martha Marcy May Marlene
lies something much more sinister. The film, directed by Sean Durkin
, is largely a character-study but is also an exploration of people who live on the fringes of society. These people may be out there, and scarier still, they may be trying to get in your house. Elizabeth Olsen
gives a stirring performance as Martha, or Marcy May, or Marlene, depending on the timeline, a girl who, while searching for herself, finds evil and tries to escape it.
The film opens with Martha going to live with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson
) after fleeing from a house where she had been living for two years. She tells Lucy she has been staying with a boyfriend but they haven't spoken during that time and Lucy is wracked with guilt and aches to heal their damaged relationship. Martha has actually been living as part of a small cult, presided over by Patrick (John Hawkes
), a steely-eyed manipulative wolf who tells her "you look like a Marcy May.." and gives her a home and a role. He gives her life meaning. Martha goes through a "cleansing" as the other girls have and is soon under Patrick's spell.
Her commune life is revealed slowly through a series of flashbacks interspersed with her "present" life living with her sister and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy
) at their swank lake house. Martha is clearly damaged upon arriving, but Lucy is patient with her strange behavior. Martha sleeps all day, swims naked, and asks inappropriate questions. Clearly she has kept some of the values of her cult-life. She does not seem to improve as the days pass, indeed her behavior gets more worrisome.
The flashbacks act as a revealing look into Martha's world.
She continually has trouble escaping her past, and her time at the lake house jogs memories of her commune life back to the present. Durkin edits the flashbacks precisely and they act as a plot-device explaining Martha's confusion between what is real and what is her past. She jumps into the lake and we are taken back to a time she swam in a water hole with her commune family. Lying in bed, she hears sounds on the roof, which remind her of the rocks she and her "family" would throw at big houses to see if anyone was home, before sneaking in to rob the place. Her fears of her past life coming back to find her eventually overwhelm her and this is exhibited beautifully through Zachary Stuart Pontier
Martha's paranoia is the central terror of the film, but the root of her paranoia is just as terrifying. Forgotten among the technology and progress of today are people like Patrick: manipulative monsters who pray on the weak and vulnerable. During one of the break-in scenes, Martha and her cult-mates stand outside a giant house with huge bay windows, waiting to see who's inside. This speaks to a larger, more frightening concept: that even in a giant home where you feel safe, there may be a Patrick out there in the woods, looking in your windows.
There are shades of Roman Polanski
here as we watch a woman lose her grip on her sanity. The film also recalls Michael Haneke
, The Dardenne Brothers
, and Ramin Bahrani
, especially the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes
. The shots are intimate, perhaps overly so at times, but this only adds to the uncomfotable tone. Lipes and Durkin are not interested in catering to the audience's whims, and thank God for that. Olsen, the little sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a brave performance as Martha. She's in nearly every shot of the film, much of the time wearing little to nothing. Her face, and especially her eyes, stay blank through many of her experiences. Particularly at the lake house, where her world is unraveling, she remains a mystery. The final shot shows her face one last time, but refuses to reveal the truth behind her perplexing stare.
For more photos of Elizabeth Olsen: