When we meet Martha(played by Elizabeth Olsen), she’s tiptoeing out the front door of a decrepit, dirty and crowded farmhouse. She’s leaving, running from something; we don’t yet know from what. She stumbles into a small town, disheveled and seemingly disoriented with her surroundings and the civilized world she once knew. Still befuddled, Martha calls her sister, Lucy(Sarah Paulson), who instantly recognizes her voice and insists upon coming to pick her up from a bus station and bringing her back to her lake house to catch up on lost time. We soon find out that Martha disappeared months ago, without so much as a phone call to any of her loved ones, and lived under the oppression of a violent cult in the desolation of the mountains. Amongst the brainwashing tactics employed by the cult leader, Patrick(John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone and Contagion), Martha was given a new name; something to further separate her from her former existence, Patrick gave her the moniker “Marcy May”. Just one of many things we’re about to learn about the grim and repulsive journey of Martha Marcy May Marlene(2011,Sean Durkin).
Most reviewers champion Elizabeth Olsen’s out of nowhere and unhinged take as the brainwashed yet well-intentioned and borderline sociopathic Martha. First time feature director Sean Durkin wanted to cast someone in the lead whom nobody would recognize and thus wouldn’t have much of any expectation or pretense for the main character, and hence make it easier for us to mesh more with what’s going on, on the screen. To me, the casting was a big success. Olsen gave a very charismatic and genuine performance and the film completely permeated around not only how she felt, but also how she made everyone around her feel. Many times, actors in these types of emotionally driven roles(especially inexperienced actors) suffer from a forced fakeness, a plasticity in their demeanor that takes the viewer not only out of situation, but also out of feel of the atmosphere, but not here. And make no mistake, this is a totally atmospheric film. While the focus is definitely on Martha(Olsen), that’s not to say there’s no other decent performances. John Hawkes nearly steals the show from Olsen as Patrick, the domineering, alluring yet dreadfully creepy and crafty cult chief. He depicts the perfect blend of sly aggression, deceit and coaxful charisma. Hugh Dancy also does a perfectly apt job playing the well-to-do newlywed husband of Martha’s sister, Ted. Between Ted, Lucy and Martha the film revolves around the married couple trying to assimilate their sister back into their lives. But after spending a few days with her, they realize there’s something very, very amiss; not only are there apparent indications of abuse and neglect, but there’s even more obvious signs of mental instability. Through flashbacks, we learn more and more about what Martha suffered through in her time with that abusive and sometimes violent cult; each flash is another piece of her history puzzle, and we begin to understand more and more of why she acts the way she does.
Upon release, this film – driven mostly by the gritty performance by Olsen – got a ton of attention from critics and film festival fanatics alike. However, it didn’t get much attention outside the festival forum and certainly sputtered financially, from lack of exposure in theaters(grossing a measly $2 million plus); most of the acclaim for this film up until this point has been garnered from fantastic word of mouth, and for good reason. There’s a lot to like about this movie. But likewise, there’s also plenty about it that may rebuff the generic cinema goer as well.
One thing that discourages some movie buffs is a lack of closure. This may be one of those movies. This film is about emotion, it’s about what’s happened to a woman and how it affects her now. It’s not about fixing her as much as it is about figuring out what has made her this way. I’ve seen some critics complain about the ending or a lack of cohesion, but I personally think those people just missed the point of this film entirely. This is not a conventional narrative, and it’s not about getting retribution, revenge or punishing those in the wrong; it’s just a story that appeals to our most basic emotive sensibilities.
This movie is far from perfect. Some of the scenes are not easy to watch and some aspects of character development aren’t fully fleshed out. But for a new director and an unseasoned actress, it’s a job fairly well done. I compare this movie to 2010′s Winter’s Bone; a new and exciting actress(Olsen instead of Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) in a story that is more about a drive for change than it is about a resolute, wrapped up story…both with a great turn from the ever creepy John Hawkes. It’s not necessarily a fun watch, but certainly one that I recommend. Just don’t expect something from it that it’s not supposed to be. Olsen already has more than six more movies scheduled for release by the end of this year, and she’s a talent to keep an eye on for sure. But I can’t imagine many of those roles being as emotionally taxing as this one.