Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mesmerising film experience. It’s frightening, harrowing, moving and disturbing. The damaged Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia as she struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.
You’re introduced to the emotionally wounded Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escaping from a commune. She travels into the nearest town and calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who collects her. Despite Martha’s physical ‘wellness’ there’s a profound darkness creeping beneath the surface.
Elizabeth Olsen is absolutely wonderful. She’s a waif, wraith-like slipping in and out of existence. In moments of her time she’s a crazy liberal bohemian and in others her conception of what is acceptable social interaction and the affects of her time at the commune begin to leak to the surface, despite her attempts to suppress.
Writer, Director Sean Durkin does a fantastic job of transitioning the film between the past and the present via Martha’s emotions. Throughout her time at her sister’s waterfront retreat, there are events and cues that trigger our transportation back to the commune. The frightening power of Durkin’s work is how ‘ideal’ the commune is in Martha’s first insights while we’re also fully aware of the dread that Olsen’s performance echoed in her escape. There’s a sense throughout the film that Martha may have been followed. In her state you’re unsure whether it’s her subjective perspective that’s dragging you in or whether there are legitimate external antagonists that have come out of the commune with the express intentions of capturing her and taking her back. Durkin plays Paulson’s steady head and jarring logic against the Olsen’s slow deterioration to depression and paranoia.
Olsen’s performance is revelatory – her range from darkness to light, from fear to joy and oneness and total outsider is captivating. The other performance which people exit the theatre talking about is Patrick (John Hawkes). He’s in the school of Charles Manson – musical, sweet, poetic and a complete outsider. He lulls you sweetly into his allure until you find yourself, violated – suchis his hypnotic and frightening behaviour.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fantastic. It may not be a fun film to watch, or one that you’d care to repeat very often – but it’s a necessary sensory experience.
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes
Martha Marcy May Marlene is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray and VOD.