Sean Durkin's indie darling finally arrives
When a young woman re-enters her older sisters life after a two year absence, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) can’t explain where she’s been. But soon, memories of her life at a mysterious commune start to surface and she begins to wonder if she has really managed to escape.
A year on from it’s much feted premiere at Sundance 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene finally lands on our shores. The first feature film from writer/director Sean Durkin, the film is an often mesmerising and subjective look at the attempt to escape from psycholical indoctrination in the wake of time spent at a cultish commune.
The title of the piece refers to the shattered identity of our protagonist – originally named Martha, she’s forced to adopt the new name of Marcy May by charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) while the last is a common name all female members use while on the phone to the outside world.
It’s a canny title and Durkin further emphasises Martha’s shattered psyche with a structure that moves fluidly between present day and her recent past. Camera movements often carry us seamlessly from one timeline to the next while audio and visual cues carry over. The device manages to give us insight into the events which Martha seems unable to talk about while also showing how trapped the character is by the torments she faced on the farm.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow moving piece but there’s plenty to keep the audience engaged, particularly some strong performances. Always dependable Sarah Paulson plays Martha’s sister, who can’t forgive herself forgive herself for abandoning her sibling and she’s supported by a maturing Hugh Dancy as her husband. And while John Hawkes can’t match his tour de force in 2010s Winter’s Bone here, he creates and electrifying presence as leader Patrick which can be felt even when he’s not on screen.
It’s Olsen’s piece though and she gives Martha everything she has. Durkin’s camera simply bathes in Olsen’s highly expressive face, dragging us into her subjective experience. It’s an unselfconscious triumph of a performance, requiring a multitude of emotions and reactions including portraying the character before, during and after he brainwashing. Forget the fraternal connection to the vapid Olsen twins, this girl is going to be around for awhile.
Martha is structured like a drama but contains strong elements of the thriller and mystery genres – particularly as the film progresses and our lead begins to suspect the cult members have located her. The structure pays dividends here again – from fairly innocuous beginnings, we come to understand her fear but also get to witness the process that seductively drew her in by degrees and even inculcated here in the practises of the place.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an uncomfortable film to watch but one that purposefully sucks you in with attractive photography and a slow, mesmerising structure that keeps the sinister nature of events oblique, at least for a time. For the most part, it’s successful at creating this aura of unease but the resolution takes a little long to arrive and there’s a suspension of disbelief that Martha’s sister takes so long to consider getting psychiatric help. But Olsen is fantastic and Durkin should be commended for crafting something both clever and creepy without the need for jump scares.