Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by:Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Christopher Abbott
Released: February 2, 2012
Grade: B+

Put your hands up if you know the Olsen twins.  I’m referring to Mary-Kate and Ashley, the two actresses who began their career on the television series Full House.  They were only 9 months old when they first appeared on the show.

What I didn’t realise until a few months ago is that they have a younger sister – Elizabeth Olsen.  Her career has taken a “little longer” to get started but she has the potential to pass both of her older siblings in terms of “star power”.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is her first major film and her powerful performance has grabbed the attention of critics around the world.  We’re going to see a lot more from this talented 22-year-old year in the next few years.

Olsen plays the same character throughout the film but it focuses on two different points of her life.  Firstly, we see her as Marcy May, a young woman who has run away from home and become part of a small cult.  She thinks these people are her friends.  Why else would they have welcomed her into their home?

The reality is that they prey on her vulnerability.  She is isolated, brainwashed and sexually abused by the cult’s leader (Hawkes).  This continues for a lengthy period of time and in the process, Marcy May loses her identity.  She no longer knows the difference between “right” and “wrong”.  She cannot see past the cult’s destructive nature.  She just thinks this is how life is meant to be.

The second part of this story is set two years into the future.  This woman has found a way out of the cult and now goes by her original name, Martha.  She has been reunited with her older sister, Lucy (Paulson), and is now living with Lucy and her husband, Ted (Dancy), in a beautiful river-front home.

Things aren’t much rosier however.  Her time inside the cult has left Martha as a broken woman.  She refuses to discuss her past and her sister cannot understand her strange behaviour.  There’s one scene where Martha innocuously climbs into bed with Lucy and Ted whilst they’re having sex.  There’s another where she strips naked in front of them.  The fact that she doesn’t see the error of her ways highlights Martha’s complete detachment from reality.

First time writer-director Sean Durkin has chosen to tell this tale in a fragmented manner.  We cross back and forth between Marcy May in the cult and Martha living with her sister.  It’s an effective technique and helps the audience understand this woman’s fractured mindset.  You’ll also get a clear sense of the helplessness felt by Lucy.  She isn’t privy to the background information (as we are) and she doesn’t know how to get her younger sister to open up about her problems.

It may be a challenging subject matter for some filmgoers but Martha Marcy May Marlene is an affecting character study.  Looking deep into the psyche of this troubled individual, Durkin isn’t offering any easy answers… and nor should he be.