WRITTEN BY: Sean Durkin
DIRECTED BY: Sean Durkin
STARRING: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy
RATING: 3.5 stars
People seem to have a strange fascination in the lifestyle of cults. I suppose it's because it seems like such a bizarre and foreign concept to most of us that we want to understand it better. How and why does someone choose to join a cult? How do you escape an oppressive lifestyle like that once you've been immersed in it for so long? It might seem like a very intense topic to discuss, but what Martha Marcy May Marlene does so well is take audiences on a psychologically thrilling ride of paranoia, anxiety and desperation.
The title of the film is a little odd, so let me explain it. Martha is the protagonist, Marcy May is the name given to her when she lives with her cult family and Marlene is the name all the females in the family use when they answer the phone. The film tells the story of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who has been living in a cult for two years. One night, she questions her lifestyle choice and decides to run away. Martha contacts her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who takes her to the holiday home she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The couple try to learn about what Martha has been doing for the past two years, but Martha becomes more withdrawn and paranoid that the cult is going to come looking for her. Soon, Lucy realises her sister might need professional help.
It turns out there is some acting talent in the Olsen gene pool, but instead of sharing it around between twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, and Elizabeth, it looks like it all went to the younger sister. Ok, maybe that's a little harsh. After all, the twins have focused more on fashion than acting since the 80's and 90's. But certainly, Elizabeth Olsen is a young actress to keep an eye on. She's very talented and convincing as a young woman in desperate need of a family and a sense of belonging as she struggles with her paranoia.
John Hawkes is also brilliant as Patrick, the sleazy and scary cult leader, father figure and essentially a trickster rapist. He's basically a modern-day Charles Manson. Paulson is also good, though perhaps too old for the role as the older sister. Her character's guilt over not being there for her younger sister is immense and Paulson carries the weight of that stress with conviction. Dancy is also good as the unsympathetic brother-in-law. He wants to be good to Martha but she's so crazy, he doesn't know what to do with her. He just sees her as a free-loader. It's a different type of role for Dancy than we've seen him in recently.
The great thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene is that it is a psychological drama that isn't boxed into its genre, nor does it allow itself to fall victim to typical Hollywood trappings. It is also an example of just about perfect editing and is something film students should study. In his first major feature film, writer and director Sean Durkin has done a great job of telling a terrifying story without blatantly telling the audience anything. He juxtaposes scenes from the past and present in a seamless, well-timed way. For example, a present-day scene of Martha swimming is then flashed back to a past scene of her swimming with her cult family. It's a smooth transition that works well to tell the story. It's also written so well that we don't actually know if Martha is delusional or if she has every right to live in fear that the cult will come after her.
The problem is the film ends abruptly and left me wondering what was going on. Is Martha safe but delusional? Is the cult coming after her? There are unanswered questions, but in a film like this, you can get away with it. The more I think about the film, the more I like it.