Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, has managed to extricate herself from a small but abusive cult led by Patrick, played by John Hawkes.  Needless to say, she is emotionally fragile.  After escaping, she calls her sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson and asks for help.  They haven’t talked for two years since Martha disappeared.  Her sister has had no idea where Martha has been and Martha can’t talk about it.

The script alternates between awkward scenes between an increasingly disturbed Martha trying to deal with what she’s been through and being unresponsive to the efforts of Lucy and her husband Ted, played by Hugh Dancy, to connect to her, and flashbacks to her time in the cult.  Both storylines progress to climaxes, although the cult scenes are more compelling, resulting in a purposefully ambiguous ending.

The film is sold as a thriller but don’t be fooled.  It is very much an American independent film, with a slow pace, natural light cinematography and subdued and oblique performances.  The centerpiece is Elizabeth Olsen’s performance which is outstanding.  She captures all of Martha’s sides, from her reticence to connect with people (which was why she never really belonged in the cult) to the strength of character necessary to escape.  It is a star-making turn.  The other actors, especially John Hawkes are very good as well.

The problem is the rest of it.  This is supposed to be an examination of the inside of Martha’s head.  Some of the events are supposed to blur the line between her flashbacks and reality.  But the techniques that Durkin uses, the long takes of Martha reacting to what the other off-screen characters are saying for example, are self consciously arty and tend to draw us out of her head and consequently the movie.  That might be an interesting juxtaposition if those techniques weren’t used in every independent film.  I don’t see the intellectual justification for using them.  It demotes this film to a middle of the pack independent project, despite the performances.

I’m sure that Elizabeth Olsen is getting plenty of offers right now.  Hopefully, we’ll see her in a better project soon.

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