“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by Sean Durkin, 102 minutes, rated R.
Although “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is one of the most noteworthy films to come out of Sundance this year, it will likely go down in history as Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout movie. After all, she’s an actress destined for greatness, and you can see why.
The film, the first feature from writer-director Sean Durkin, tells the story of Martha aka Marcy May aka Marlene (Olsen), a young woman who’s felt abandoned her entire life, and because of that has been lured into a dangerous cult in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In the cult, led by Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha – renamed Marcy May – finds the family and home that has been absent all her life.
But like every such cult, it’s an illusion to entice the weak-minded into laying down their undying loyalty for a cause that doesn’t exist. She’s brainwashed, treated inhumanely and sexually abused. While other young women willingly play the subservient part Patrick has assigned to them, Marcy May has a conscience and will that remains untainted by her leader.
After years of witnessing and taking part in unspeakable acts, Marcy May makes her exit. She calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), for help. Lucy is the opposite of Martha – wealthy, married and stable – and she opens her doors to her sister, concerned as to where Martha has been for the past few years.
When Martha comes into Ted and Lucy’s home, she’s like an abused animal, picked up off the streets trying to assimilate herself into a society she’s never known. But it’s her paranoia that Patrick will come looking for her that overwhelms Martha.
Olsen, the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley (the “Full House” twins), has grabbed Hollywood’s attention, as well as mine, with “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” With her performance as Martha, Olsen has leapfrogged that “It Girl” status often attached with these kinds of roles, and landed into a category almost all her own.
Her challenge here is finding Martha’s identity – something that is strangely numerous yet nonexistent in many ways. Her identity has been molded and remolded to the point where it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who she is. There’s strength in the Martha, but there’s a vulnerability that has left her broken. She’s a paradox, and would be difficult for any actress to take on, especially one as unseasoned as Olsen. But she owns it.
While the movie is a breakthrough for Olsen, it serves a similar purpose for Durkin, who weaves together Martha’s past and present with remarkable fluidity. He maximizes both timelines, unraveling them to build tension and slowly reveal just how deep Marcy May was in over her head.
But the rawness of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” reminds you that Durkin is a fresh filmmaker, unsullied by the studio system and full of ambition. It’s what makes the film a much-needed alternative to Hollywood thrillers, and one of the best movies to come off the indie circuit all year.