Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

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Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Before the Martha Marcy May Marlene press screening started, my friend and I joked about the name of the film and how difficult it was to recall all the "M" names in it. After seeing the movie, however, it's quite doubtful the viewer will forget the film's title. Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Olsen -- sibling of those Olsens, who really looks like a younger Maggie Gyllenhaal -- stars as Martha/Marcy May.

Olsen's Martha is confused and currently dependent on her older sister Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) generosity, such as it is. She refuses to confide in Lucy about what she's been up to the past two years.

Before deciding to reach out to her much older sister, Martha lived a couple years at a farm in upstate New York headed by a David Koresh-like figure named Patrick (former Austinite John Hawkes). The farmworkers/cultmembers are all twentysomething lanky, attractive folk who share a wardrobe. Patrick renames our protagonist Marcy May and initiates her into the group by raping her after she's been drugged. Another woman in the group assures her after the awful event that this was a "truly good" thing.

Not only does this rape serve to remove Martha's agency, but as time passes on the farm she comes to be objectified and further dehumanized. She listens with the group as Patrick sings a song named "Marcy" wherein she's "just a picture." In this cult -- whose philosophy is never really explained other than that Patrick is the charismatic leader -- for the one daily meal they eat, the men sup before and separate from the women, and there are no female children around.

While the first scenes of Martha Marcy May Marlene occur at Patrick's farm, this setting mainly shows up in Martha's dreams (nightmares?) and memories. Zachary Stuart-Pontier's editing is so brilliantly smooth that as Martha's present and past merge, the movie's reality for the viewer becomes as muddled and mixed-up as her current reality. Spare, dissonant music by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans adds to the tension and growing shock about what happened to Martha over that lost period of time.

I hoped Martha would regain some of her self, or at least start feeling a little more confident, while staying with Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy). She gains a slight sense of empowerment as her brother-in-law lets her navigate his boat; this is also one of the few bright moments in a dark film. Her time in the cult perpetually haunts her, her paranoia grows, and she loses control of her mind and body.

An hour in, Martha Marcy May Marlene becomes even creepier when we see Martha's most recent memories of Patrick and his influence. What had been an intimate film up to that point turns into a sort of psychological thriller/heist amalgam. The shift in tone seems blatant in what is otherwise a fairly subtle movie. The ending is surprising in its lack of even a hint of resolution.

With his debut full-length feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, director Sean Durkin has created a truly original work. Olsen pulls off the title character in an understated performance. Is it the most powerful performance I've seen by a female onscreen this year? Not so much. Was I still pondering this film and discussing it with my friend afterwards? Yes. But I was also glad that I hadn't been the only woman at the screening.