Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes
Martha: Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?
Instantly uncomfortable, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, is unlike any experience I’ve had at the movies. It is at times both eerily quiet and dishearteningly noisy; it is painfully present but yet also lost in a haze of what is real and what is imagined. It inspires great sympathy and even greater anxiety. Its tension is palpable and its style is distinct and effective. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a truly accomplished piece of filmmaking from writer-director, Sean Durkin, a first time feature filmmaker. With that in mind, it is just plain shocking across the board.
As skillful as Durkin proves to be, he has help, led by a star-making turn from lead actress, Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen, who incidentally is the younger sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley (and I’m sure never tires of seeing that repeated in print), is incredible as Martha. We meet her when she is Marcy May, her name changed when she entered a seemingly loving commune. Her new family turns out to be an abusive cult, led by recent Oscar nominee, John Hawkes (WINTER’S BONE), but the warmth they show her is still enough for her to leave behind the family she had always known. Olsen carries so much depth in her composure, her face and general demeanor are cold and lifeless. Still, there is fight inside her that breaks through the surface from time to time, hoping to make its presence more permanent. Olsen makes Martha’s struggle so grave, you feel as though she could slip away from everything at any moment, never to return. She is simply captivating and I could barely breathe as I watched her push back from hell.
Durkin takes this towering performance and drops it in the middle of a world of bewilderment, bouncing back and forth in time and place between Marcy May’s time with her adopted “family” and Martha’s attempt to reintegrate into society with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy). At times, many of them in fact, she cannot distinguish between the two experiences and subsequently, neither can we. Her transition is never simple and both situations place rules on her that she struggles against, leaving it open for debate as to which scenario provides her with real love, if any. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is as disturbing as you would expect from what I’ve described but it is also just as revelatory.