Even if it had nothing else to offer, Martha Marcy May Marlene would be worth seeing to witness the debut of an extraordinary young actress, Elizabeth Olsen. But writer-director Sean Durkin’s feature, which earned him a Best Director prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has a lot going for it aside from this striking performance.
It’s not an easy film to watch: it’s intense, discomforting, and slowly-paced. What’s more, Durkin has chosen to leave some things unsaid, forcing us to—
—ponder the whys and wherefores of his characters at different junctures in their lives. He pulls us in right from the start, as we witness Olsen’s desperate escape from a communal farm somewhere in upstate New York. She doesn’t know where she is, but she telephones her sister (played by Sarah Paulson), the only family she has. Her sibling takes her in, despite the fact that she hasn’t known her whereabouts for the past two years.
From this point on, the film deftly skips back and forth in time, allowing us to share Martha’s life in the past and present—just as she attempts to leave her experience under the influence of the commune leader behind and re-enter “normal” society. The problem is that she’s forgotten what normal is. Fresh-faced Olsen is a natural in front of the camera, and conveys her character’s breakdown, confusion, and wall of denial without ever resorting to histrionics.
Using intimate camerawork, evocative locations, and well-chosen actors, Durkin weaves a compelling emotional tapestry. His screenplay is canny in the way it introduces us to the farm and its father-figure, played by the great John Hawkes. This is no stereotypical cult leader: he is at turns friendly, commanding, and cruel. He knows how to be persuasive when the situation demands, and sharp when he feels he has no recourse. That’s what makes him so real, and ultimately so frightening: he has a silver tongue and can justify anything he does, leading to extreme acts of sex and violence. Hearing his younger converts parrot some of his “teachings” is especially chilling.
Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t provide the answers, or resolution, a conventional Hollywood movie would. What’s more, it dares to take its time. But it covers fresh territory and draws us into its characters’ lives with an intimacy (and credibility) that make it a standout among this year’s indie releases.