Olsen sets herself apart from sisters with Martha Marcy May Marlene

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • November 10, 2011

, Beacon Correspondent/strong

First-time director Sean Durkin’s emMartha Marcy May Marlene/em is both mesmerizing and tense as it explores the troubled mind of a traumatized woman. The film, which received much praise at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, is a captivating psychological thriller that depicts the inability of Martha (played by 22 year-old Elizabeth Olsen) to separate her current “normal” life from the life she lived as a brainwashed cult member in the Catskills for two years.

Martha is perpetually unhinged, lost, and always looking for something to fill the void she feels — an emptiness possibly caused from losing her mother but the circumstances surrounding this are left deliberately unexplained. When Martha first joins the cult, she assumes the persona of the group, even taking on a new name, Marcy May, and the group surname, Marlene, because the father-like cult-leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), suggests it. The members do everything together and she hesitantly follows their practices, which involve everything from household chores and farm work to sexual “cleansing,” robbery, and murder.

The void lingers after her escape from the cult, which leaves her in the care of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Martha’s lack of knowledge about social cues is bluntly obvious and her constant paranoia — the blending of the line between dreams and past reality — leaves her wondering if she ever really left the cult at all. The film jumps from cult-life to current time in a flash-back, flash-forward way that portrays Martha’s confusion about her place in the world after she escapes the cult.

In emMartha/em, Olsen shows us that we won’t be identifying her as only “Mary-Kate and Ashley’s sister” for very long. Olsen’s magnificent performance drives the film; she maintains the layers of her character even when in silence. Her body language throughout the film – hunched shoulders, wide eyes — reveals the character’s vulnerability and fear of society. She portrays Martha with a raw honesty demanded by such a complex role.

The beautiful cinematography further stresses of darkness in Martha’s state of mind. Durkin is an expert with lightning: he highlights and shadows the faces of the characters, and the abyss-like, almost-black water at Martha’s sister’s house intensifies the girl’s feeling of entrapment.

A highly effective study of a truly disturbed individual, emMartha Marcy May Marlene/em serves as an beautifully done introduction to a promising young actress.