Dynamic, restrained performance
Martha (Olsen) is rescued by her sister after her daring escape from a creepy cult in upstate New York. She struggles to recover herself and become whole.
Zombie-like Martha looks serene. Inwardly, she’s falling off a cliff. Her progress is tortuous.
She hides what happened to her, not asking for help. When confronted she screams, “I’m a teacher and a leader,” parroting the words of a cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) she can’t forget.
Martha’s confusion deepens as she stays at the Connecticut lake house of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). The sisters grew apart after their mother died. Lucy now feels responsible for Martha.
Marcy has lost herself. Her mind is a mess. She clings to hazy notions of community and empowerment during violent outbursts.
How could someone disappear for two years without a word? Lucy and Ted are stunned when Martha strips at the public lake. She even creeps into their bed one night while they make love.
Through flashbacks that blur place and time, we glimpse Martha’s life at a ramshackle farmstead. She confuses memory with the present, and so do we. In the cult she befriends Zoe (Louisa Krause) and Watts (Brady Corbet).
Revering their leader, the residents follow bizarre rules. They do chores but eat only once a day, at supper. Men finish eating before the women can begin. Wearing tattered hand-me-downs, they declare they will prosper someday.
Hawkes (Uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone) plays Patrick with skeevy menace. Slowly, his deranged beliefs emerge. He rapes the women by turns in the night. New women are dressed, drugged and coached before their first rape.
Manipulating minds, bodies
“You’re my favorite,” Patrick tells her. Martha struggles, then submits. Later, she coaches newcomer Sarah (Julia Garner) before her “first night.”
Patrick plays Marcy’s Song on the guitar for the group. “Well she, she’s just a picture / that lives on my wall / Just a picture, that’s all” he croons.
The isolated community must surrender body, mind and spirit. Fatherly and quiet Patrick can threaten any follower’s life abruptly. They must be willing to kill for him.
Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography and Zac Stuart-Pontier’s editing enhance the introspective drama.
Durkin told Filmmaker Magazine that his early years in a religious school inspired an interest in cults. He won a Directing Award for this film at Sundance 2011.
Olsen’s upcoming films
Olsen will appear in several films in 2012, including Peace, Love and Misunderstanding with Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener; Silent House with Adam Trese; Red Lights with Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver; and Liberal Arts with Josh Radnor.
Olsen studies theater full time at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
This indie psychological thriller disturbed and fascinated me as much as The Exorcist, where evil ensnares a privileged and morally vulnerable victim.
Martha’s struggle is a bit like our own, when you look at the influence that mainstream media news and advertising have on us every day.
A Silkwood-like ending is deeply unsettling. Oscar nominations are likely for Olsen and this film. (4 out of 5 stars)
Martha Marcy May Marlene 2011 / R / 1 hour, 41 min
Cast Overview: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson
Director: Sean Durkin
Genre: Indie, Drama, Psychological Thriller