Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

By Stephen Rebello

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Free of zombies, vampires and other cliches, writer-director Sean Durkin's debut film may be the most terrifying of the year.


Director: Sean Durkin MPAA Rating: R Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

That creeping sense of dread and horror that trails you out of the theater after seeing the troubling, quietly astonishing Martha Marcy May Marlene may only be eclipsed by the sheer pleasure of watching Elizabeth Olsen’s strong performance. The film marks a mightily impressive debut from writer-director Sean Durkin, and in it Olsen (the younger sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley) beautifully plays a damaged young woman who flees a cult in upstate New York and struggles to find a place for herself with her family and the wider world. Her character “Martha” is wary, watchful and often silent. She claims to have no memory of certain key events in her recent past. She lies easily, manipulates, acts inappropriately, suffers mood swings and does what she feels she must to survive.

Is she a victim? An accomplice? Something more slippery and less easily defined, it turns out.

The startlingly accomplished film time-slips between Olsen’s character’s recollections of her at first idyllic-seeming communal “family” led by John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) who plays his role with a mix of seduction, charisma, piety, cruelty and psychosis that make the skin crawl. You won’t soon forget a scene in which Hawkes quietly strums a guitar and sings Olsen a song he’s written about her; it’s the stuff of nightmares. Well-acted but slightly less impressive are the scenes in which Olsen tries to reconnect with her older sister and brother-in-law (Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy) at their posh lakeside getaway house. The scenes never quite cut deep enough beneath the surface of the history of the guilt and misunderstandings that haunt the two sisters.

In the end, though, the film is so eerily filmed, edited and composed that it leaves you with a sense of dread and horror. Martha Marcy May Marlene looks, sounds, moves and feels persuasively original yet writer-director Durkin has clearly absorbed lessons from such masters as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Peter Weir and Terrence Malick. It turns out that this quiet, moody, subtle and unexpected film—refreshingly free of zombies, vampires and other cliches that go bump in the night—may be the most terrifying of the year.


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