At a time when Oscar bait is dominating cinema screens everywhere, from the beautifully-shot-if-a-little-obvious War Horse to the perfectly-competent-if-a-little-bland The Descendants, Martha Marcy May Marlene provides the perfect antidote. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea; it is unpolished both in look and feel, and its ambiguity may frustrate some, but if you do not insist on having your tea fed to you intravenously (some people do) then it is definitely worth a look.
Elizabeth Olsen’s remarkable central performance is alone worth the entrance fee. Yes, she is the younger sister of child-stars Mary-Kate and Ashley, and no, that shouldn’t put you off. Her turn as Martha, a young girl trying to deal with the distressing memories of her time spent with a sinister cult, is outstanding, giving off an authenticity that is crucial to making the film work. Martha Marcy May Marlene has drawn comparisons to last year’s Winter’s Bone and, just like that film put Jennifer Lawrence on the map, expect Olsen’s career to gather some serious pace after this.
The film begins with Martha escaping the cult and seeking shelter with her older sister (Sarah Paulson). As it plays out we are drip-fed the experiences she has fled, and as those experiences shift from a sense of family and belonging to more dark and menacing places, her behaviour in the present becomes increasingly paranoid and erratic.
Alongside this, writer and director Sean Durkin, making his first feature film, succeeds in instilling in the audience a growing feeling of unease; the heightened use of everyday noises proving particularly evocative. The film feels like a horror movie, hard to watch but at the same time impossible to tear yourself away from.
Another thing the aforementioned Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene have in common is the ever impressive John Hawkes, and his creepy turn as cult leader Patrick is excellent. Importantly, despite insidious goings on, he is believable as a loved and revered leader. The scene in which he performs Marcy’s Song resonates particularly strongly, and is especially disturbing given its context.
Some have complained this film submits nothing new to the cult-movie sub-genre, offering only clichés seen time and time again but to say that is to miss the point. The film is primarily a character study, exploring the psychological trauma suffered by a young girl who simply cannot come to terms with her past. It is not perfect, but it makes for a hugely refreshing watch.