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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Released 3 February 2012
Director Sean Durkin

Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Poulson, Hugh Dancy, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause
Writer(s) Sean Durkin

Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Chris Maybach, Patrick Cunningham
Origin United States
Running Time 102 minutes
Genre Drama, thriller
Rating 16

Cult movie.

The Olsen twins were a teen phenomenon back in the late nineties and the first half of the last decade. Mary-Kate and Ashley made TV shows and films and also had their own merchandise and started their own fashion lines. They made millions but also had their share of personal problems. Mary-Kate was treated for an eating disorder and Heath Ledger was found dead in her apartment, while Ashley had to sue the National Enquirer after allegations that she used drugs. It can’t have been easy for their younger sister Elizabeth, growing up surrounded by such a media circus.

However Elizabeth has emerged from the shadow of her sisters with a startling debut feature performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which made a big impact at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who escapes from a cult in the Catskills Mountains at the start of the film. She makes contact with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and she brings her to a lake house where she’s on holiday with her English husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The story of her two years with the cult is then told in flashbacks.

Martha is showed being gently introduced into the cult by a female friend and immediately renamed ‘Marcy May’ by its charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes). The members of the cult live very basic lives working on a farm and sharing bedrooms and clothes. The simplicity and sense of community appeals to Martha but it’s not long before things take a darker turn. She is drugged and raped by Patrick, but the other women in the group convince her this was a ‘spiritual cleansing’ so she stays. There is little mention of any religion or higher power; instead Patrick controls the group with subtle manipulation building up their egos before knocking them down when it suits him. Soon Martha becomes a “leader” herself and helps prepare a new girl for her initiation. However the group still needs money and when a burglary goes badly wrong, Martha starts to have her doubts.

Playing alongside all this is Martha’s attempts to re-enter normal society with her sister and her husband. Lucy feels guilty about leaving Martha when their mother died and constantly tries to engage with her. However Martha constantly shuts her out and insists nothing is wrong. Her behaviour tells a different story though as Martha constantly acts oddly and this becomes increasingly exasperating for the uptight Ted. Martha also becomes increasingly paranoid that the group is coming to get her back.

This is a tense psychological drama that hooks you from the start and never lets go even though not that much happens. Yet it’s never overplayed and it avoids the usual clichés that crop up in such films. It’s heavily reliant on the performances of the main cast and they’re all in top form. Paulson and Dancy are excellent as the couple who are driven to distraction trying to cope with Martha. Hawkes turns in another superb performance, completely free of histrionics but always unsettlingly sinister. After his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone last year, he’s fast becoming another one of those great American character actors.

However there’s no doubt that this is Olsen’s film and she shines. She’s achingly vulnerable yet not particularly sympathetic, but always keeps you interested throughout. It’s a very subtle performance that is greatly aided by the deft direction from Sean Durkin (another feature debutant). It’s a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination but the Academy seemed to have ignored edgy independent work this year.

The eerie score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans greatly adds to the tension. The only quibble is the ending, which is somewhat jarring and seems to belong to a different, less thoughtful film.

Overall though this is an excellent exploration of why certain people are drawn to cults and the damage they can do.

- Jim O’Connor