Initially premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by newcomer Sean Durkin, was a huge critical success. The direction and lead performances from fellow newcomer, Elizabeth Olsen (a younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) and John Hawkes earnt the trio and the film itself numerous independent film festival awards and nominations, and on a limited release in the USA, Martha Marcy May Marlene took just over $3m at the box office.
Martha (Olsen), having fled from an abusive commune in the Catskill Mountains calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) seeking help. Having been taken in by Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha begins to exhibit strange behaviour, which leads Lucy and Ted to question what happened to her in the commune and he relationship with its messianic leader Patrick (Hawkes). Through flashbacks Martha’s experiences are chronicled, including psychological abuse, assault and rape.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the epitome of indpendently-spirited psychological drama. It relies entirely on the harrowing nature of the story and the performances at its centre to drive the film forward. Its story uses the history of cult-like behaviour in the United States for inspiration. Pitched somewhere between the Manson Family and the Branch Davidians, Patrick’s ‘family’ are a cohesive group drawn together under the musings of its charismatic leader. Without Hawkes outstanding performance as the smooth-speaking Patrick, Martha Marcy May Marlene would not work, but throughout he is thoroughly charming, entirely captivating.
It’s such a powerful performance in fact that it’s easy to believe that the group of down-on-their-luck individuals he has assembled would hang on every word he says and forgive him the crimes that he commits. The scene where he sings for Martha (latterly renamed Marcy May) is the standout scene of Martha Marcy May Marlene and encapsulates exactly how his character is equal parts messiah, equal parts monster. Yet it is Hawke’s performance that allows Olsen to really stretch her emotional range, and from this she becomes the star of the film.
As a debut performance, Elizabeth Olsen is incredible in Martha Marcy May Marlene. She has to show the fear, terror, acceptance and struggle that fills her life both on the commune and when living with her sister. Yet with such a fragile role she is able to hit all the right notes and makes the audience understand that the decisions she makes, no matter how unbelievable, make perfect sense in her confused moral state. It’s a powerhouse performance of such subtlety that it really marks Olsen out as one to watch in the future.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the more surprising films of 2011 and shows the up-and-coming talent in the film industry. While Hawkes is the veteran performer, it is the direction of Durkin and lead performance of Olsen that creates the real tension and dramatic power of the film. While the title Martha Marcy May Marlene is not great and many will not like the ambiguity that runs throughout, the film itself has to be seen to be believed.