[15 September 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Director: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson
An exquisite, terrifying, and marvelously vertiginous film, Martha Marcy May Marlene is my favourite movie of the Festival, and may stand up as my favourite picture of the year. A meditative study of a young woman (a dazzling Elizabeth Olsen) during the first weeks after she escapes from a cult, the narrative moves back and forth in time, juxtaposing her struggle reconnecting with her relatives on the outside world with scenes demonstrating the relative ease she had connecting with the “family” at their farm.
As confused about her identity as the title suggests—which name is her own, who is she, after all?—Martha is caught in a spiral of paranoia, depression, and turmoil that few could imagine. Certainly not her sister or her brother-in-law, who take her in and try to calm her down, knowing nothing of where she has been, and with whom, for so long. Unable to come clean to them, Martha pushes everything deep inside, even her mounting panic that the cult is tracking her down, coming to drag her back to their twisted outpost in the Adirondacks.
As the spare storyline suggests, this is a disarmingly subtle thriller that refuses to make it easy on the audience. Rookie director Sean Durkin so skillfully weaves the two “worlds” together that we struggle to keep track of just where we are at any given time. Is this the past? The present? A dream? A nightmare? Who, now, is this young woman, and how will she find her way back to something approaching normalcy? Will the “family” really let her go? There are no uncomplicated answers, and the bravura final scene leaves us shivering with an exhilarating dread.
Featuring John Hawkes as the Manson-esque cult leader, a strong performance from Sarah Paulson as Martha’s well-meaning but understandably exasperated sister, and a truly knockout star-making turn from Elizabeth Olsen in the lead.