out of Five
Running time: 101
Strikingly directed and brilliantly written, this is a deeply disturbing and powerfully moving indie drama with a terrific central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the Olsen twins, though she looks more like Maggie Gyllenhaal) as Martha, a young woman who is first seen fleeing a seemingly idyllic commune in the Catskills. Clearly panicked, Martha calls her older, recently married sister Lucy (Sarah Poulson), who she hasn't seen in two years and moves into the upscale lakeside house Lucy shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
However Martha is haunted by her memories of the religious cult and struggles to re-assimilate into normal life, causing tensions between Lucy and Ted. Meanwhile, a series of increasingly disturbing flashbacks reveal exactly what went on at the commune and the systematic brainwashing at the hands of charismatic cult-leader Patrick (John Hawkes).
Elizabeth Olsen delivers a sensational, utterly riveting performance as Martha that's heart-breaking to watch as you slowly realise the extent of the damage that her ordeal has caused; essentially she's suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet she doesn't seem to realise that something is wrong. Hawkes is equally good as the Manson-like Patrick, perfectly capturing the sinister combination of seemingly compassionate charm and underlying menace.
Durkin's excellent script does a terrific job of showing exactly how the brainwashing takes place and there are strong echoes of both Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence and Michael Haneke's Funny Games (the latter accentuated by the presence of Brady Corbet as one of Patrick's acolytes). The source of the title is particularly chilling; Marcy May comes from Patrick casually renaming her (“You look like a Marcy May ...”) when she first arrives at the commune, while the meaning of Martha isn't revealed until much later.
The film is beautifully shot, courtesy of cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, with Durkin achieving a deeply unsettling and disorienting atmosphere through the use of clever editing, tight close-ups and offbeat framing. This is heightened by some exceptional sound design work and a superb soundtrack by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
The only real problem is that Dancy's character seems too one-note, while Lucy makes frustratingly little attempt to get to the bottom of Martha's evidently serious problem, though you could argue that that's intended as a comment on her own self-absorption.
Superbly written and featuring a pair of potentially award-worthy performances from Olsen and Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a genuinely chilling and powerfully moving drama that marks writer-director Sean Durkin out as a talent to watch. Highly recommended.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (R16)