The name Elizabeth Olsen may be part of the reason Martha Marcy May Marlene has been generating a lot of buzz in recent weeks, but the film’s story and visuals are truly worth seeing. And yes, Olsen gives a magnificent performance: One that lives up to all the hype.
In a film titled four different names, the viewer immediately begins to wonder about their meanings. Each name has significance here, in a movie about a young girl who escapes an abusive cult and attempts to re-establish her relationship with her sister after years of absence. The plot moves between the two periods of time simultaneously: Olsen’s character at her time in the cult and afterwards at her sister’s house. The time with the cult starts out innocently enough, but as the viewer begins to notice some rather “off” tics about her post-cult, the reasons become clear in the flashbacks. As do all the names (I won’t spoil it for you!).
And so the story continues in a slowly unfolding manner, and for the most part, very quietly. Director/writer Sean Durkin shot the movie in rural, remote locations, which adds to the mystery. He reinforces the “doubleness” of Olsen’s story within many of his frames — there are many close-up shots with two focal points and the camera focuses on one and then moves to the other. The viewer’s eyes may squint for further clarity as something or some character goes out of focus… but that is the point.
The cult leader, Patrick, played by the incomparable John Hawkes (he was Oscar nominated for last year’s Winter’s Bone), endears himself to everyone while constantly manipulating their emotions on a backwoods farm. Olsen travels from this environment to that of her sister’s, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). They live in an upscale and roomy vacation house on a lake, and while Lucy has many questions for her sister, the love she has for her is real. And so continues the stark differences and duality theme of the film.
However, the described quiet and remoteness does not mean it is without intensity. There are many suspenseful scenes, and the abuses of the cult do become violent and sometimes brutal. Remember: There is a reason she escapes. The ending also plays hauntingly on screen; Olsen’s eyes continually evoke wide-eyed sadness and tragedy.
Many people will want to see this movie based solely on the fact that Elizabeth Olsen is related and reminiscent in looks to her twin sisters, yet she more than holds her own in Martha Marcy May Marlene — she is mesmerizing and obviously talented on screen. I’m sure this is only the first of many great performances to come.
Director/Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson
Film is out now in theaters. Rated R.
Interested in seeing another Olsen sister in the limelight? Would you go see Martha Marcy May Marlene?