"Martha Marcy May Marlene" opened last week in select cities, but I think talking about it on Halloween weekend is much more appropriate. Though there's no shortage of horror flicks this season offering plenty of thrills and gore, there are few movies more quietly unnerving coming out this year than this film.
The movie opens on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escaping from an overpopulated farmhouse in the Catskills and disappearing in the woods. We later learn that the place is home to a back-to-land, Manson-style cult run by a charismatic leader named Patrick (John Hawkes). Later in the film we see that he starts calling her Marcy May, and with a song and a health drink spiked with a Micky, he manages to win her heart. Of course, that's the way he wins over all the dozen or so women in the cult. Martha is so wounded and eager to be a part of something, she soon finds a place in the cult. That is, until she gets pulled deeper and deeper into Patrick's crimes.
Soon after escaping, she makes a panicked, awkward phone call to her sister Lucy, who she hasn't had contact with in two years. The voice on the other end of the line sounds concerned, but not especially warm. Martha gets taken in by Lucy, who along with her new, rather humorless husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), lives in a sterile, cavernously large lakeside vacation house. Years of undefined familial pain and lacerating expectations, along with Martha's flat refusal to talk about her time in the cult, keep the two sisters from ever connecting. Moreover, she has no idea how to fit into their upper-class yuppie life and starts acting in some very strange ways.
At one point, Martha asks her sister, "Do you ever have a hard time telling what's real and what's a dream?" First-time director Sean Durkin deftly cuts back and forth between Martha's time with Lucy and flashbacks of the cult until the audience isn't too clear what's going on either. For most movies, that would be a criticism. In this film, it's an asset. Recalling some of Polanski's finest early flicks, Durkin ratchets up the confusion during the second half of the movie to mirror Martha's paranoia and psychological implosion. Patrick may or may not be coming to get her, but it's a gripping ride.
This movie does have a lot in common with last year's indie breakout "Winter's Bone": both were standouts at Sundance, both feature brilliant performances from John Hawkes, and both had Oscar buzz around a previously unknown blonde ingénue. Given the buzz around her performance coming out of Sundance and Toronto, Elizabeth Olsen pretty much is a lock on a Best Actress nomination and she deserves it. She's in just about every scene in the movie and her unbelievably expressive face carries the movie. Watch for her around Oscar time and watch her landing leads in future summer blockbusters.
See the trailer to 'Martha Marcy May Marlene':
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