‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ Review: Elizabeth Olsen breaks out in suspenseful cult drama

Marcy (Elizabeth Olsen) stares blankly while her sister (Sarah Paulson) helps her dress in Sean Durkin's suspense drama 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rated R

Running Time:  101 Minutes

Grade: A


Perfect ambiguity brings filmmaker Sean Durkin’s suspenseful drama about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) escaping an abusive cult to a daring close that leaves audiences wondering about the fate of its troubled heroine. It’s an edgy and chancy decision by Durkin, one that suits the artful nature of Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM). Premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, MMMM is this year’s standout specialty film release, an experimental, atmospheric, thrilling drama and legit alternative to Hollywood fare. MMMM also provides an impressive set of debuts for Durkin, who’s directing his first feature after a couple of impressive short films, and Olsen, who almost single-handedly supports the movie with a rich and complex performance.

Durkin begins his story with Martha (Olsen) contacting her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for the first time in years and asking to recuperate at the luxurious country home Lucy shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). In an intricate web of frequent flashbacks, Martha’s recent experiences at a nearby cult in upstate New York become painfully clear as well as the cruelty she suffered at the hands of the cult’s charismatic leader (John Hawkes).

Lucy struggles to understand her younger sister’s strange behavior and Marcy’s unwillingness to talk about her recent past makes her family reunion strained. Via nightmares and growing paranoia, Marcy fears for her life but it’s never clear whether her worries are true or not — not even at the terrifying conclusion.

Durkin has some impressive experimental shorts to his credit but he makes a successful transition into narrative features with MMMM. Durkin, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and production designer Chad Keith match the film’s tense storytelling with beautiful images of the cult’s rural farm. Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier keep the story moving briskly via extended flashbacks of Martha’s time at the cult. Still, what speaks to Durkin’s impressive leaps from shorts to feature-length movies is his ability to inspire strong performances from his cast. MMMM is a dazzling to the eye but its performances are truly special.

John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is both compelling and frightening as the cult leader. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are pitch perfect as family members incapable of understanding Martha’s predicament.

Much of the film’s excitement revolves around newcomer Elizabeth Olsen who’s both sympathetic and aggravating and strong-willed and deeply scarred as Martha. Olsen has a famous name thanks to her celebrity sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen but she’s a newcomer to movie audiences.

It’s one thing to choose a challenging movie like MMMM for one’s feature film debut and it’s another to deliver the year’s most heartbreaking performance.

Elizabeth Olsen makes Martha unique and unforgettable and now, thanks to MMMM and her standout performance we can begin to say the same things about her.

Grade: A

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Director: Sean Durkin

Scriptwriter: Sean Durkin

Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Brady Corbet, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Running Time: 101 minutes

Producers: Borderline Films, FilmHaven Entertainment, MayBach Cunningham, This is That

Rating: R

Release Date: Fall 2011

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